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Will U.S. airlines allow cell phone use?

Have you noticed more people leaving their cell phones on during flights - and apparently not in the so-called airplane mode?

While slightly disconcerting, it also might be fine. Several non-U.S. airlines allow in-flight cell phone calls, including Emirates and Malaysia airlines and, within the next year, Cathay Pacific Airways and, on a trial basis, Virgin Atlantic.

Could such allowances be made in the United States?

Certainly, says Michael Planey, a consultant on in-flight passenger technologies. But bans would need to be lifted by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration.

THE BACK STORY The FCC ban has nothing to do with air safety; it is to prevent cell phone towers from being overwhelmed by thousands of quickly moving phones searching for signals on the ground. In 2004, the agency considered overturning the ban but relented in the face of public opposition. The FAA ban is in place to prevent possible interference with airplane functions.

It's easy to find experts to take opposite sides on whether cell phones present a risk to aviation controls. Planey argues that cell phones present little risk, and the overseas experience seems to bear that out. The primary hurdle, he says, is convincing the public that voice calls wouldn't drive them crazy.

"Everyone assumes they'll be stuck next to a teenager yapping away on their phone for a six-hour flight," Planey says.

The key, he says, is making people pay handsomely for the service - as much as $2 to $4 a minute (though Virgin Atlantic says callers on its flights will be charged by their mobile operator on their normal monthly bill).

PROS VS. CONS In theory, no one could benefit more than the business traveler - just imagine getting work done while charging an employer for the cost. But the National Business Travel Association has supported House legislation that would ban voice communications on airplanes.

"Business travelers welcome the opportunity to work quietly in-flight while utilizing technologies such as e-mail, texting and instant-messaging," the association's director of public policy, Shane Downey, said by e-mail. "However, phone conversations can be disruptive in such an environment."

Rick Seaney, co-founder of FareCompare.com, says surveys show that about 85 percent of people oppose in-flight cell calling, which means a battle looms.

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