Understanding the In-Flight Cell Phone Ban
You’ve probably been on a flight and forgotten to turn off your cell phone before takeoff, only to find that its battery is low or dead upon arrival; or maybe you sent a text message while taxiing out to the runway or during the takeoff and climb phase of the flight. But wait: Nothing bad happened, right? So does this mean it’s OK to break the rules and sneak in one last call or text when you know you’re not supposed to? Or is the ban on cell phone use silly, and should it immediately be retracted?
The simple answer to all those questions is no—and until the rules change, it is in everyone’s best interest to adhere to the prevailing regulations. Passengers should be aware of the potential dangers to aircraft navigation systems. You may even agree with these rules after hearing some of the facts.
I believe the rules concerning personal electronic devices (PEDs)—especially the rule limiting the use of PEDs below 10,000 feet and the rule forbidding cell phone use at any altitude (because its signals are stronger than most other PEDs)—should be approached with prudence. While it is difficult to find evidence of PEDs’ ever having caused an aviation accident, caution remains the mantra of the regulatory bodies entrusted to provide the public with a safe air-transportation system.
To fully understand this issue, you need some background information. There are three key players in the decision to ban the use of wireless devices on commercial aircraft: the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), the FCC (Federal Communication Commission), and the RTCA (Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics). The RTCA was organized in 1935, and it remains a private, nonprofit corporation. Its main function is to develop consensus-based recommendations for the FAA and the FCC regarding communications, navigation, surveillance and air-traffic-management system issues. The RTCA functions as a Federal Advisory Committee, and its recommendations are used by the FAA as the basis for policy, program and regulatory decisions.
The initial ban on using electronic devices on aircraft came after a 1961 study by the RTCA, which looked at reports that PEDs had possibly interfered with onboard electronic equipment. Further studies by the RTCA—one in the mid-1980s, and another in the ’90s—found that while such a risk was overall extremely low, it was highest during critical phases of the flight, particularly take-off and landing.
The FCC, which had the final say in the matter, banned the use of wireless devices starting in 1991. In an effort to investigate the validity of the original ban, the RTCA conducted its own research in 2003. Finally, in 2007, the FCC concluded that a permanent ban should stay in place.
Critics of the ban point to the more liberal policies of some European carriers and encourage U.S. airlines to follow suit—but those European carriers may be overlooking some complexities. Technology, including consumer electronics, has advanced exponentially in recent years. Avionics systems have expanded and improved as well, but many airlines haven’t committed the resources to upgrading to the more advanced units. As a result, some aircraft are still equipped with older electronics that are more susceptible to radio frequency interference.
In the end, it all comes down to the frequency spectrum, as well as which devices operate on which frequencies. The navigational receivers located in or near the cockpit are most likely to be disturbed by RF (radio frequency) emissions from PEDs. All airliners are equipped with multiple navigational receivers. Most have at least two VORs (Very high-frequency Omnidirectional Range) receivers, two ILS (Instrument Landing System) receivers, and, more likely than not, two GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers. While PEDs have the capability to interfere with any of these systems, the greatest area of concern is the effect they may have on GPS receivers. GPS-certified approach procedures are relatively new but still widely accepted in general aviation. While most airlines still use the ILS system for all-weather operations and auto-landings, GPS approaches are becoming much more common.
In a 2004 NASA report, a particular model of cell phone caused GPS receivers to lose satellite lock in several general aviation aircraft during their approach to landing. An investigation revealed that the phone’s RF emissions were sufficient to affect the performance of the GPS receivers. While these emissions were in the allowable frequency range, this impact on the receivers is problematic. I can tell you from experience that you do not want your pilot’s instruments to lose lock during an actual approach in bad weather. Not only is it dangerous, but the resulting go-around also costs precious time and money for everyone.
What about Wi-Fi?
Many airlines are introducing onboard Wi-Fi services (for a cost) that allow passengers to log into the Internet through their laptops. These services operate in dedicated air-to-ground frequencies that were previously reserved for seat-back telephones. They do not, therefore, pose any interference risk and are approved by the FCC.
Source of conflict
The battle lines have been drawn between passengers who want to avoid the annoyance of in-flight calls and those who clamor for more relaxed rules. If the current cell-phone ban were lifted, we might see the return of something akin to the aircraft smoking section of bygone days. Nonsmoking passengers in those days were upset to have to breathe in all of that secondhand smoke. Now imagine all the secondhand conversations your fellow passengers might have to listen to while trapped inside the cabin next to the cell-phone section.
Many passengers say that the aircraft cabin is one of their last areas of solace, because they are completely unavailable for communication from the outside world. In addition, the cabin is a very confined space where a lack of courtesy from your fellow passengers can make an entire flight miserable. Imagine a planeload of folks chatting on the phone while you try to sleep or get some work done. During a recent Congressional House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, many members voiced their opposition to lifting the ban—in fact, they voted overwhelmingly to keep it in place permanently.
There is no shortage of stress in today’s hectic world. To my mind, the best course of action is to turn off our phones and disconnect for a few hours. We might even be able to relax and enjoy the solitude.
CHRIS COOKE is a pilot with a major domestic carrier. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.