- Doug Drury
- The Conversation*
All of us who travel by plane know the routine by heart: “keep your seatbacks upright, your tables closed and locked, your blinds up, your laptops in overhead compartments, and your electronics in airplane mode.”
The first four seem reasonable, right? The blinds need to be up so we can see if there’s an emergency, like a fire. Tables need to be closed and seats upright so we can get out quickly. Laptops can become projectiles in an emergency, and their seat storage locations aren’t strong enough to contain them.
And cell phones need to be in airplane mode so they don’t cause an emergency for the aircraft, right? Well, that depends on the person you ask.
Technology has advanced a lot
Navigation and air communication rely on radio services, which have been coordinated to minimize interference since the 1920s.
The digital technology used today is much more advanced than some of the older analog technologies we were using 60 years ago. Research has shown that personal electronic devices can emit a signal in the same frequency range as aircraft navigation and communication systems, creating what is known as electromagnetic interference.
But in 1992, the United States Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and Boeing, in an independent study, researched interference with aircraft when using electronic devices and found no problems with computers or other devices. personal electronic devices during non-critical phases of flight (critical phases are take-off and landing).
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has also started to create reserved frequency bands for different uses — such as cell phones, communications and air navigation — to prevent interference between them.
Other governments around the world have developed the same strategies and policies to avoid problems of interference with aviation. The European Union, for example, has allowed electronic devices to stay on since 2014.
2.2 billion passengers
So why, with these global standards in place, does the aviation industry continue to ban the use of cell phones?
One of the problems is something that can be hard to imagine — interference with Earth.
Wireless networks are connected by a series of towers. These networks can become overloaded if all passengers flying over these terrestrial networks are using their phones.
Airline passenger numbers in 2021 were more than 2.2 billion — and that’s only half the number of passengers seen in 2019, so the phone companies could be right on this point.
Of course, when it comes to mobile networks, the biggest change in recent years is the move towards a new standard. Today’s 5G wireless networks — desirable for their faster data transfer speeds — have caused concern for many in the aviation industry.
The radio frequency spectrum is limited and we are still trying to add more devices. The aviation industry warns that the 5G wireless network’s frequency range is too close to the spectrum reserved for aviation, which could cause interference with navigation systems near airports that help aircraft land.
Airport operators in Australia and the United States have raised concerns about aviation security with the development of 5G. But, apparently, the new system has been developing without problems in the European Union.
In any case, it is prudent to limit cell phone use on planes while 5G issues are clarified.
And we can’t forget the behavior of the passengers
Most airlines now provide customers with free or pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi services. And with new Wi-Fi technologies, passengers can theoretically use their cell phones to make video calls to friends or customers during the flight.
On a recent trip, I asked a flight attendant what she thought about using the phone during flights.
She replied that it would be inconvenient for flight attendants to wait for passengers to finish a call to ask if they wanted any drinks or something to eat. On a plane with 200 passengers or more, in-flight service would take longer if everyone was making phone calls.
For me, the problem with using phones while flying is more about the social experience of having 200 or more people on a plane, all of whom can talk at the same time.
At a time when passenger misbehavior is increasingly common, including tantrums during flights, using the phone while traveling can be another trigger to alter the entire flying experience.
Misbehavior takes many forms, from breaking safety regulations such as not wearing a seat belt, verbal arguments with other passengers and flight attendants, to physical arguments with passengers and flight attendants — typically called air rage, or ” aerial rage”.
In conclusion, the use of in-flight phones currently does not impair the ability to operate the aircraft. But flight attendants may prefer not to delay providing in-flight service to all passengers — there are too many people to serve.
On the other hand, 5G technology is invading the radio frequency spectrum of aircraft navigation systems. We will need more research to answer the question of interference between 5G and air navigation during landings.
Remember that when we discuss the two most critical phases of flight, takeoffs are optional — but landings are mandatory.
* Doug Drury is Professor and Head of Aviation at the University of Central Queensland, Australia.
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