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Phones on a plane: To talk or not to talk?

By Marnie Hunter and Katia Hetter, CNNUpdated 23rd November 2013
You think you won't do it, but you will.
As the Federal Communications Commission considers a proposal to lift its ban on cellular service on U.S. flights, experts say that even those who scoff at the idea of talking on a cell phone aboard a plane will probably have trouble resisting the call of, well, calling.
Disconnecting people who are acclimated to constant communication causes their brains to release stress and anxiety-based neurotransmitters, according to Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Given what psychologists know about anxiety and how it affects behavior, Rosen expects tech-reliant fliers to pounce on the opportunity to make phone calls in flight.
"I don't think most of the avid users will be able to stay away," Rosen said. "I don't think those people are going to care whether they're upsetting anybody."
Karen Cerulo, a sociology professor at Rutgers University, agrees. "No matter where you fall on the (love it-hate it) continuum, you're likely to use your cell phone because it's so much a part of everyday culture."
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University of Michigan psychology professor David Meyer bought his first iPhone at the beginning of the year and pointed to flights as one of the last places on Earth where someone can escape others talking on their phones.
But if most other people start to use their phones in flight, as he thinks they will, Meyer expects the complainers will, too. Yes, even him.
"I would be extremely willing to forgo my access to using the phone on the plane if that same restriction would be obeyed by everyone else. Once other people are allowed to do it, what the heck?" he said. "I'd rather be talking to someone I know on my own phone than listening to someone else's conversation."
Some experts hope airlines and airline passengers will take a cue from other transportation systems' efforts to accommodate riders seeking silence.
Psychologist Patricia Wallace hopes the collective agreement that enforces the quiet in quiet cars on Amtrak would help keep the volume down on aircraft.
"On Amtrak's quiet car, that norm (to keep quiet) is so strong, and people will definitely react" when the silence is broken, said Wallace, a senior director at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth.
Making calls in flight is still very much up in the air. The FCC plans to consider lifting its ban in a meeting December 12. Even if the agency lifts the ban, the Federal Aviation Administration would have to weigh in on safety, and individual airlines would ultimately set their own policies for voice calls.
Based on years of customer feedback, Delta Air Lines said recently that it would not allow calls in flight. The airline's statement was made before the FCC announced its proposal to end its ban on voice calls, but a Delta spokesman said Friday that the carrier's position hasn't changed. JetBlue and United have also mentioned negative customer feedback as a factor in how they would respond to a lift on the ban.
"If the FCC's new policy does go into effect, we would prioritize making the cabin comfortable and welcoming for all -- for those who want cell service and for those who like peace and quiet," said JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young.
If it's allowed, gabbing at 30,000 feet would probably cost you. The expense of installing the necessary equipment on planes would be passed from cell service providers to users.
Whether or not the ban is lifted, travelers have plenty to say about the idea.
"I don't want to hear people talking on their phone in the middle of my flight," wrote Josh Crews, a project manager in Chicago, in an e-mail.
"When you're on an airplane there is already an uncomfortable tension due to the fact that you're in a compact space with a ton of strangers. Give those strangers a cell phone and suddenly you're hearing about how they can't wait to eat dinner because they're starving and why they think grandma might have indigestion."
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