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We all know the routine by heart: “Please make sure chairs are upright, tables are stowed, window shades are up, laptops are stowed in overhead bins, and electronic devices are set to airplane mode.”
Now, the first four are reasonable, right? The window shades must be up so we can see if there is an emergency such as a fire. Tables with trays must be placed and chairs upright so we can get out of line quickly. Laptops can become projectiles in an emergency because the back pockets are not strong enough to contain them.
And cell phones have to be set to airplane mode so they can’t cause an emergency for the plane, right? Well, it depends on who you ask.
Aviation navigation and communications rely on radio services, which have been coordinated to minimize interference from the 1920s.
The digital technology in use today is much more advanced than some of the older analog technologies we used even 60 years ago. Research has shown that personal electronic devices can emit a signal in the same frequency band as the aircraft’s communication and navigation systems, creating what is known as electromagnetic interference.
But in 1992, US Federal Aviation Authority and Boeing, in a independent study, investigated the use of electronic devices in aircraft interference and found no problems with computers or other personal electronic devices during non-critical phases of flight. (Takeoffs and landings are considered critical phases.)
The US Federal Communications Commission has also begun creating frequency bandwidths reserved for different uses – such as mobile phones and aircraft navigation and communications – so that they do not interfere with each other. Governments around the world have developed the same strategies and policies to prevent aviation interference problems. In the EU, electronic devices were allowed to stay since 2014.
Why then, with these global standards in place, has the aviation industry continued to ban the use of cell phones? One of the problems lies in something you might not expect – ground interference.
Wireless networks are connected by a series of towers; the networks could become overloaded if passengers flying over these ground networks are all using their phones. The the number of passengers who flew in 2021 it was over 2.2 billion, and that’s half the number of passengers in 2019. Wireless companies might have a point here.
Of course, when it comes to mobile networks, the biggest change in recent years is the move to a new standard. Current 5G wireless networks – desirable for their higher speed data transfer – have caused concern for many in the aviation industry.
Radio frequency bandwidth is limited, but we are still trying to add more new devices. The aviation industry points out that 5G wireless network bandwidth is remarkably close to the bandwidth spectrum reserved for aviation, which can cause interference with navigation systems near airports which helps to land the aircraft.
Airline executives worry about your cellphone’s 5G network. Here’s Why (2021)
Airport operators in Australia and US have raised aviation safety concerns about the rollout of 5G, however it appears to have rolled out without such issues in the European Union. In any case, it is prudent to limit cell phone use on airplanes while the 5G issues are resolved.
Most airlines now offer Wi-Fi services to customers that are either pay-as-you-go or free. With new Wi-Fi technologies, passengers could theoretically use their cell phones to make video calls with friends or customers in flight.
On a recent flight, I spoke with a cabin attendant and asked his opinion on phone use during flights. It would be an inconvenience for cabin crew to wait for passengers to finish their call to ask if they would like some drinks or food, she said. On an airliner with more than 200 passengers, in-flight service would take longer to complete if everyone was making phone calls.
To me, the problem with using phones in flight is more about the social experience of having 200+ people on a plane and they can all talk at once. At a time when disruptive passenger behavior, including “air rage,” is increasingly common, in-flight phone use could be another trigger that changes the entire flight experience.
Disruptive behavior takes many forms, from failure to comply with safety requirements such as not wearing seat belts, verbal altercations with other passengers and cabin crew, to physical altercations with passengers and cabin crew – usually identified as air rage.
Bottom line – the use of phones in flight does not currently affect the aircraft’s ability to operate. But cabin crews might prefer not to be late providing in-flight service to all passengers – that’s a lot of people to serve.
However, 5G technology encroaches on the radio bandwidth of aircraft navigation systems; we will need more research to answer the 5G question regarding interference with aircraft navigation during landing. Remember that when we discuss the two most critical phases of flight, takeoffs are optional—but landings are mandatory.