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ATLANTA — We all know the routine by heart: “Please make sure your chairs are upright, tray tables are stowed, window shades are up, laptops are stored in overhead bins and electronic devices are set to airplane mode.”
Now the first four are reasonable, right? Window coverings must be up so we can see if there is an emergency, such as a fire. Tray tables must be stowed and seats upright so we can quickly get out of the row. Laptops can become projectiles in an emergency, as the back pockets are not strong enough to accommodate them.
And cell phones have to be set to airplane mode so they can’t cause an emergency to the airplane, right? Well, that depends on who you ask.
The technology has developed a lot
Air navigation and communications rely on radio services, which have been coordinated to minimize interference since the 1920s.
The digital technology currently in use is much more advanced than some of the older analog technologies we used 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 system, creating what is known as electromagnetic interference.
But in 1992 US Federal Aviation Authority and Boeing, in one independent study, investigated the use of electronic devices on aircraft disturbances and found no problems with computers or other personal electronic devices during non-critical phases of flight. (Takeoffs and landings are considered the critical phases.)
The US Federal Communications Commission also began creating reserved frequency bandwidths 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 developed the same strategies and policies to prevent aviation interference problems. In the EU, electronic devices have been may remain since 2014.
2.2 billion passengers
Why then, with these global standards in place, has the airline industry continued to ban the use of mobile phones? One of the problems lies in something you might not expect – ground disturbances.
Wireless networks are interconnected by a series of towers; the networks can become congested if passengers flying over these ground networks are all using their phones. The number of passengers who flew in 2021 was over 2.2 billion, and that’s half of what 2019’s passenger numbers were. The wireless companies may have a point here.
When it comes to mobile networks, of course the biggest change in recent years is the transition to a new standard. Current 5G wireless networks – desirable for their faster data transfer – have caused concern for many in the airline industry.
The radio frequency bandwidth is limited, but we are still trying to add more new devices to it. The airline industry points out that 5G wireless network bandwidth spectrum is remarkably close to the reserved aviation bandwidth spectrum, which may cause interference with navigation systems near airports which helps to land the aircraft.
Airport operators in Australia and USA. has expressed aviation safety concerns linked to the deployment of 5G; however, it appears to have rolled out without such problems in the European Union. In any case, it is wise to limit mobile phone use on airplanes while issues around 5G are resolved.
In the end, we can’t forget air rage
Most airlines now provide customers with Wi-Fi services that are either paid or free. With new Wi-Fi technology, passengers could theoretically use their cellphones to make video calls with friends or customers in flight.
On a recent flight, I spoke with a cabin attendant and asked her opinion on in-flight phone use. It would be an inconvenience for cabin crew to wait for passengers to finish their conversation to ask them if they want something to drink or something to eat, she said. On an airplane with over 200 passengers, air traffic would take longer to complete if everyone made phone calls.
To me, the problem with using phones in flight is more about the social experience of having over 200 people on a plane, all potentially talking at the same time. At a time when disruptive passenger behavior, including “air rage,” is increasingly common, in-flight phone use can be another trigger that changes the entire flight experience.
Disruptive behavior takes many forms, from non-compliance with safety requirements such as not wearing seat belts, verbal altercations with fellow passengers and cabin crew, to physical altercations with passengers and cabin crew – commonly identified as air rage.
In conclusion – using phones in flight does not currently impair the aircraft’s ability to function. But cabin crew may prefer not to be delayed in providing in-flight service to all passengers – that’s a lot of people to serve.
But 5G technology encroaches on the radio bandwidth of aircraft navigation systems; we need more research to answer The 5G issue regarding interference with aircraft navigation during landings. Remember that when we discuss the two most critical phases of flight, takeoffs are optional – but landings are mandatory.
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