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Friendlier Skies for Cell Phones

Several airlines have recently made life a little easier by relaxing restrictions on the use of cellular phones.

US Airways, Delta, Northwest, and American all now permit passengers to make cellular calls while the aircraft is parked at the gate, as long as the door is open. If the captain allows it, passengers may also place calls when the plane is waiting on the ground for an extended period.

The four airlines' new policies match those already in effect at United and Southwest. Continental and TWA fliers can dial freely when the plane is at the gate with the door open, but pilots do not have the authority to allow calls at other times.

Why the worry?"The calls might interfere with aircraft communications or navigation," said United spokesman Joe Hopkins. Surprisingly, no one seems to know if there actually is a risk, but, as Hopkins points out, "No one wants to take the chance."

The in-flight ban on cell phones is more than airline policy—it's a federal rule. Once a plane is airborne, says Paul Takemoto, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman, "cell phones are prohibited for use on all U.S.-registered aircraft." Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has its own rule barring cellular phone calls from the air; because the signal is received at multiple locations, it can mess with cellular networks.

Last summer, a British court sentenced a passenger to a year in jail because he refused to stop using his cell phone on a British Airways flight. U.S. carriers say they know of no similar enforcement problems here.

How come the airlines' own phones are okay for in-flight use?Reason number one: They employ frequencies that don't impede airplane equipment. Reason number two: The airlines make money off them. GTE charges $2.99 to connect and $3.28 per minute (on domestic flights), while AT&T's rates are $2.99/$2.99.

Cell phones aren't the only troublemakers. In August, Japan's three major airlines began ordering passengers to remove the batteries from their Furbys before takeoff. The electronic "pets" can't be turned off, and they emit waves that could affect cockpit instruments.

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