Picture yourself sitting on a cross-country airplane flight trying to read a book or catch a nap while sandwiched between passengers yakking non-stop on their cell phones. And consider the overall increase of noise in an airplane as dozens of passengers walk up and down the aisle hollering into their phones.

People often feel that their peace and privacy are invaded by inconsiderate cell-phone users in restaurants, movies, elevators … you name the public venue. Inside an aircraft, however, you’ll be stuck. You can’t change seats or walk out.

It’s no wonder that more than two-thirds of the flying public thinks lifting the ban on cell-phone use in the air is a bad idea, according to a recent CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll.

However, the Federal Communications Commission is taking steps to do just that. The FCC is seriously considering allowing passengers to use cell phones and other wireless devices during flight.

The FCC’s review focuses on new technology (called “pico-cell”) that is being developed to prevent wireless equipment in the air from interfering with the workings of cellular networks on the ground.

However, the more serious question of cell-phone interference with aircraft electronic and navigational systems is beyond the FCC’s purview. Even though use of cell phones in the air is prohibited, passengers sometimes do turn them on during flight, and resulting problems have been documented by scores of pilot trouble reports collected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Aviation Safety Reporting System.

Whether the pico-cell technology can offer foolproof protection for aircraft electronics is being researched and tested in a study initiated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Completion will take another year or two.

Even if the technical safety threat can be resolved, human factors surrounding cell phones in flight pose other problems that the regulators need to take seriously.

In this era of long airport lines and frazzled nerves from heightened security, “air rage,” often fueled by alcohol consumption, is growing more common. And flight professionals have been telling the FCC that OKing airborne cell phones is a prescription for bedlam.

A flight safety manager for a major carrier wrote to the commission: “As a safety professional, I read incidence reports where passengers become disruptive because the flight is 10 minutes late, or the right type of beverage is not offered. … Cell phones will just be another trigger for these types of events.”

A 10-year flight attendant wrote: “I have seen fist fights because one passenger puts his seat back and the passenger behind him wants to read his newspaper. Can you imagine what would happen when people are gabbing away [on cell phones]?”

Ensuring passenger safety is the flight attendant’s No. 1 responsibility, and gaining passengers’ attention during an emergency–especially one requiring a rapid and orderly evacuation–was a top concern expressed to the FCC by the Association of Flight Attendants.

Here’s what cabin crew members had to say about rampant cell-phone use during such situations: “[phones would cause] complete chaos …” “if [passengers] didn’t hear my PA [public announcement] they would be in big trouble …” “[imagine] trying to pass on important information that will save lives, yet we are competing for the attention of passengers [on their phones] …”

Amtrak was forced to set aside “quiet cars” for the peace-loving majority of travelers. But what is the comparable solution for air travel: “quiet flights” or sound-proof cabin compartments? And what about emergencies? A cabin light that says “turn off cell phones” wouldn’t do it–we’d need a system whereby a pilot could instantly shut down all cell-phone transmission so passengers could hear vital safety announcements. It’s doubtful that airlines would willingly accede to the costs of such measures.

Most travelers understand these issues, as they’ve already indicated to pollsters. Now they need to send a clear message to federal regulators: Look out for our safety and our sanity in the air.

More here.