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Larry Hillman, a sales director for Siemens,
made a call before boarding in Chicago.
He likes the no-call rule on planes.

Silence Aloft Is Under Threat

Many have come to cherish the airplane as the long metal tube of silence and relish the digital downtime at 35,000 feet. Business people who are at the constant beck and call of electronic devices while tethered to the ground, say they have come to think of the airplane cabin as a place to nap, think or even work. But this may come to an end as pressure builds on the airlines to offer these services as a source of extra revenue and as a way of getting a competitive edge.


Security lines, weather delays and equipment failures make flying a burden for many. For Jason Reed, it is a slice of heaven - virtually the only place he is not bombarded by phone calls and e-mail.

"Being on a plane has become a mini-retreat for me," said Mr. Reed, 32, executive vice president of Touchstone Pictures. "Long international flights are like vacation. No phone, no e-mail and no guilt for being unreachable."

But Mr. Reed's no-obligation oasis may soon disappear. Federal regulators are reassessing the rules barring phones in the air even as some international airlines are gradually introducing Internet access to their planes. And two European carriers - TAP Air Portugal and BMI, a British company - said recently that they would become the first to proceed with cellphone service, in three-month trials on flights within Europe next year.

Of the thousands of comments the federal government has received on the issue, many focused on the fear of being stuck next to someone jabbering away. But a different concern has emerged: the dread of hearing one's own voice on the cellphone.

Some business travelers, the bread-and-butter customers of airlines, say they privately relish the digital downtime at 35,000 feet. Managers who are at the constant beck and call of electronic devices while tethered to the ground, say they have come to think of the airplane cabin as a place to nap, think or even work - but in a focused way that precludes easy interruption or multitasking.

Forget the cone of silence. Many have come to cherish the airplane as the long metal tube of silence.

Once cellphones and BlackBerries are allowed to breach that silence, the solution may not be so simple as keeping the devices turned off, since business associates and bosses will expect to be able to get in touch. Travelers say the no-phone policy has saved them from their own compulsions.

"My hope," Mr. Reed said, "is that in-flight cell service is either so patchy or so expensive as to give me an excuse not to deal."

James E. Katz, director of the center for mobile communication studies at Rutgers University, said the emerging debate over whether to allow phone use on planes is taking on a larger symbolism. Airplanes, he said, have become the last place where people in business do not feel obliged to be constantly and immediately available.

Perhaps counterintuitively, Mr. Katz said, airplane travel has become for many people a highly productive time, either because it permits uninterrupted work, or simply a reflective time that has been lost in a world of 24/7 digital stimulation.

"We've created a world where if you don't get back to somebody immediately, you're suggesting they're not important," he said. "People love having the enforced tranquillity."

The travelers are actually not being lazy by wanting to avoid work, but rather can really use the downtime, said John J. Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard. Being in an airplane "is like going to a monastery," Mr. Ratey said. "It's a kind of a timeout. They relish the break."

How to provide phone access on airplanes is a debate with many participants. An advisory committee of the Federal Aviation Administration is looking at whether cellphone use interferes with aircraft equipment. The Federal Communications Commission is studying whether transmissions from planes could interfere with cellphones on the ground.

In August, Connexion by Boeing, a company that sells wireless equipment to airlines, and Qualcomm, a wireless software company, began testing air-to-ground interference levels - by flying a cellphone-equipped Boeing 737 around rural areas of North America.

With their report still several months away, neither of the federal agencies is expected to resolve the questions until next year.

The F.C.C. has received an earful from the citizenry about the subject in general. In a public comment period from February to August, more than 8,000 responses were received, many from people who do not want to hear others chatting in flight. Some of the objections have been more organized; the Professional Flight Attendants Association, for example, argued that chatting in the tight confines could lead to greater stress.

"The last bastion of peace is being threatened: flight time!" read a written comment from Jeanne Elliott, national coordinator for security and regulatory affairs for the division of the flight attendants group that represents 9,700 flight attendants at Northwest Airlines.

One comment came from Melissa Eskins, a flight attendant from Memphis, who said she feared that unfettered cellphone use would give rise to one-upmanship, especially among first-class travelers. "With cellphone usage, they'll have a new way to compete," she wrote. "Imagine 15 people or so yelling at their secretaries telling them how they needed their reports yesterday."

Some people, of course, do need their reports yesterday, and for them being stuck on an airplane is no help. Charles M. Lax, 46, a venture capitalist from New Center, Mass., just outside Boston, says he gets anxious in flight knowing that the messages are piling up.

"The voice mails stack up, the e-mails stack up, and it becomes a nightmare to respond," said Mr. Lax, who carries two cellphones, one for primary use, the other a backup that also gets e-mail. "Nine out of 10 times I fly I'm doing so for business, and I want to be productive in between."

Still, Mr. Lax said he could do without phone access on planes, but would like e-mail, which he said was a more efficient way to get business done anyway.

While several international airlines already offer Internet access on selected flights, United Airlines in June became the first domestic airline to receive permission from the F.A.A. to do so. It plans to provide the service around the beginning of 2007, said Robin Urbanski, a company spokeswoman. But she said United did not intend to pursue cellphone service for now because customers have expressed concern about the etiquette of passengers talking on planes.

Pressure may build on the airlines to offer these services as a source of extra revenue and as a way of getting a competitive edge, Chris Petersen, an official for Boeing's Connexion service, said.

"When the doors to the airplane are closing, people are scrambling to get out their last three e-mails" and phone calls, Mr. Petersen said. "Airlines want to offer this service to customers."

But not all customers want it. Larry Hillman, 39, travels more than 100,000 miles a year as director of national sales for Siemens Building Technologies, a division of the European multinational electronics giants. He reserves flight time for reading (recently, he flew from San Francisco to Chicago and Portland, Me., digesting "1776" by David McCullough) but also to focus on a single work-related issue.

"I have the ability to think on a single issue and be more strategic because I'm not interrupted," Mr. Hillman said.

Mr. Reed, the executive for Touchstone Pictures, said he was trying to take advantage of his in-flight quiet time while he still could.

"It's going to happen one way or another," he said, sighing. But until then, "it's been a nice break."

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