So What is the Real Deal with Mobile Phones and Airplane Safety?

By Jacquelyn Tanner.

Image via The Economist.

As the plane is leaving the gate we all(at least those born and raised in the wifi generation) await the dreadful “everybody please turn off all electronic devices.” For me, a terrified flyer, this announcement is especially painful. I covet every little thing that can distract me as the big metal machine begins to magically float in the air; thus when they make me turn off my FAVORITE device it is like really upsetting.

On the other hand, as my brain likes to over-analyze everything that is going on while suspended 10,000 feet above the air I have had the following thought more than a few times: “If a couple of turned on phones could potentially bring down an entire plane, WHY ARE THEY EVEN ALLOWED ON IN THE FIRST PLACE?” So as the doctors tell you to do(sarcasm) I decided to search the internet for the answer. With one Google search I easily gathered that there is quite the debate out there on the subject. Mohit Arora wrote an informative, yet lengthy, article on the subject. Here is an excerpt where he lists the main reasons for the ban: 

Airlines need passengers under control and the best way to maintain that cattle-car atmosphere might just be with a set of little rules beginning at takeoff.

The barrier is clearly political, not technological. No one in a position of authority wants to change a policy that is later implicated as a contributing factor toward a crash. Therefore, it’s a whole lot easier to do nothing and leave the policy as it is, in the name of “caution.” (Since old airplanes with analog systems may still be vulnerable to interference, it’s best to make the rule consistent.)

The FCC (and not the FAA) bans the use of cell phones using the common 800-MHz frequency, as well as other wireless devices, because of potential interference with the wireless network on the ground. This also clogs the ground network since the signal bounces off of multiple cell towers.

Mobile phones do interfere with airplane communications and navigation networks – trust what they tell you.

Since the towers might be miles below the aircraft the phone might have to transmit at its maximum power to be received, thereby increasing the risk of interference with electronic equipment on the aircraft. Similar to Point 4.

The airlines might be causing more unnecessary interference on planes by asking people to shut their devices down for take-off and landing and then giving them permission to restart all at the same time. This would increase interference so it’s best to restrict mobile phones for the complete duration.

Restrict any device usage that includes a battery.

A few devices, if left on, may not cause any interference. However the case may be different if 50-100 or more devices are left on, chattering away interfering with the plane communications system. Furthermore, there would be no way for the flight crew to easily determine which devices are causing the problem. So best is to restrict usage completely.

If mobile phones are allowed on board, terrorists might use the signal from a cell phone to detonate an onboard bomb.

Airlines support the ban on mobile usage because they do not want passengers to have an alternative to the in-flight phone service. This might have some truth to it since the phone service could be very profitable for the companies involved.

Even though all aircraft wiring is shielded, over time shielding can degrade or get damaged. Unshielded wires exposed to cell phone signals may affect navigation equipment.

Another reason could be to keep passengers aware of the important announcements and safety procedures from pilot and crew, which otherwise could be ignored. In addition, these devices in people’s hands could cause injuries during an emergency situation and hence should be required to be switched off during landing and take-off. The idea being that since one could not operate the device, most likely, passengers would keep them away rather than holding them.

Unfortunately now I am only more conflicted.  Next time I bored JetBlue do I want even the tiniest bit of my safety sacrificed for the comforting comforts of having access to my cellphone?

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