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The Real Reasons Phones Are Kept Off Planes 642

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the flip-the-switch dept.
jcatcw writes "Mike Elgan argues that the the real reason that cell phones calls are not allowed is fear of crowd control problems if calls are allowed during flight. Also, the airlines like keeping passengers ignorant about ground conditions. The two public reasons, interference with other systems, could easily be tested, but neither the FAA nor the FCC manage to do such testing."
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The Real Reasons Phones Are Kept Off Planes

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  • funny (Score:4, Insightful)

    by minus_273 (174041) <aaaaa&SPAM,yahoo,com> on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:00AM (#18655505) Journal
    this is funny because he missed the obvious and actual reason. most planes ive flown on have had a phone on the arm rest with a little slot to swipe your credit card.
    • by khallow (566160)
      I agree with this post. As I extremely dimly recall, there was a flight with funky electrical problems which they apparently were able to tie somehow to cell phones. I gather that the airlines figured out that this problem was too profitable to fix. And government has no real stake in fixing it either.
      • Re:funny (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Kizeh (71312) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @01:16PM (#18656595)
        To certify every cell phone to be safe in flight would require a lot of study and creating new standards, restricting the design criteria of avionics and testing of every possible cell phone model. That could be pretty darn expensive.

        Not to mention that we live in a global world; how do you certify that a Chinese passenger's Chinese cell phone doesn't interfere with a Russian plane's avionics flying into the US? Getting everyone on the planet to agree to these things is a pretty impressive challenge.
        • Re:funny (Score:5, Informative)

          by SerpentMage (13390) <ChristianHGross@ya[ ].ca ['hoo' in gap]> on Sunday April 08, 2007 @01:29PM (#18656693)
          If a Russian plane flies into the US it has to be certified by the US. That usually means either Airbus, or Boeing or some other smaller plane manufacturer that has already been certified. If you want an interesting flight (my brother tells me this) fly in Russia using a domestic airline.

          Cell phones are already tested for interference because otherwise they would interfere with other devices. Cell phones are certified to use regulated bandwidths. It's walkie-talkies and cordless phones that you need to be worried about since they use uncertified spectrum's.

          The reality is that most of these things have already been verified as that is why you have little stickers on the back of the device indicating that they have been certified. And interestingly enough most countries have similar certifications because otherwise they would have wireless nightmares.
          • Re:funny (Score:5, Interesting)

            by runexe (24089) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @03:01PM (#18657327)
            Cell phones do interfere with other devices - that the nature of all electronics - especially ones in which radio transmitters play a leading role. There is no getting around the fact that cell phones create radio 'noise'. Yes, they have been tested to make sure they are only creating radio emissions to some agreed upon level in the band/frequencies they are licensed to transmit on, and some (lower) agreed upon level outside of that band. However, certifying electronics for use on-board planes is a little more of a dicy issues - because the mere possibility that booting up your laptop during landing might generate enough noise to screw with the GPS, or the ILS systems that are helping the pilot guide the giant metal tube full of jet fuel and fragile humans to a concrate surface is a scary enough scenario that the FAA has decided its easier to just have a blanket ban on such things during take-off/landing. The ban on cell phones is a similar conservative (or paranoid if you prefer) move: its easier to say its not allowed than to test its enough to be reasonably certain its safe. In reality modern digital cell phones inside a modern jet could be perfectly safe - but there are a large number of models of airframes out there, and a much much larger number of cell phone models - many of which can operate in several different modes and corresponding frequencies. Certainly I'd prefer they spend the time to check it out some more so that in the future they can certify my cell phone is safe to use on the particular plane I'm stepping onto so I can talk during particularly long flights. In the meantime I have to wait until the plane taxis to a full stop by the gate before powering it up and making the call to say we've landed. An inconvenience, but I don't mind the fact that they're focusing more energy on the making the plane safe part and haven't devoting their full energy to making it easier to make phone calls during the flight part.
            • Re:funny (Score:4, Insightful)

              by billcopc (196330) <vrillco@yahoo.com> on Sunday April 08, 2007 @06:12PM (#18658467) Homepage
              Cell phones are cheap, noisy chinese devices. The fact that my bigass car stereo goes "ba-ba-buzz-ba-ba-buzz" whenever the phone rings is more than enough proof for me. If the cell's nasty op-amp interference can penetrate all my carefully installed uber-shielded stereo equipment and wiring, then I wouldn't be surprised if it messed with flight sensors and other twitch-sensitive gadgetry.

              Fears aside, I actually like not having cell phones in a plane. For one, I hate phones. Two, I hate people who spend their whole life on a phone. Three, flights are long and boring, perfect for a nice little nap. If a dozen powersuit assholes are having a phone conference in a plane, I'll be turning into a spontaneous terrorist. I don't care if I have to beat them to death with a pillow, whatever it takes to shut them up. It's already enough of a nuisance that people treat coffee shops like their own personal office these days... a guy can't have a frickin' macchiato and enjoy a book anymore with these loud pompous market-slaves invading every quiet space on this bubble.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by rv8 (661242)

          The problem is much more difficult than simply certifying every cell phone design as safe. The problem is that a small number of cell phones might have shielding that becomes ineffective, either through a problem during manufacturing, or something that happens in service (dropped cell phone, cell phone disassembled and reassembled by curious geek, etc).

          And, it is possible that the avionics or coax cabling in some aircraft might be not quite up to snuff. So, most aircraft of a given design are OK, when

        • by nbritton (823086) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @02:55PM (#18657293)
          Back in season 3:

          "It was found that cell phone signals, specifically those in the 800-900 MHz range, did interfere with unshielded cockpit instrumentation. Because older aircraft with unshielded wiring can be affected, and because of the possible problems that may arise by having many airborne cell phones "seeing" multiple cell phone towers, the FCC (via enforcement through the FAA) still deems it best to stay on the safe side and prohibit the use of cell phones while airborne." -Wikipedia

          You can read more about it here: http://kwc.org/mythbusters/2006/04/episode_49_cell phones_on_plane.html [kwc.org]
    • Re:funny (Score:5, Informative)

      by Quasar1999 (520073) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:09AM (#18655605) Journal
      Actually, ask anyone that knows how cell towers work, and your real explanation would become evident. Cell phones try to communicate with as many towers at once as possible, this is required so that you can walk from one cell's coverage to another's without dropping your call... a typical phone sees anywhere from 3 to 6 towers at once depending on geography and density of cell towers. Throw that phone up a few thousand feet, and I've personally seen my blackberry connect to 40+ towers at once. This eats up valuable bandwidth at each cell tower, not to mention the fact that you come in and out of a cell's coverage area so fast that it's impossible for your calls to be handed off properly between the cells.

      Oh, and good luck with the E911 crap... In the course of a minute, you've gone from the east end of a major city to the west end according to the cells.
      • Re:funny (Score:5, Funny)

        by Shatrat (855151) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:38AM (#18655873)

        Oh, and good luck with the E911 crap
        I think that if you have to call 911 from a plane, them finding your location is the least of your problems.
        • Re:funny (Score:5, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:56AM (#18656005)

          I think that if you have to call 911 from a plane, them finding your location is the least of your problems.
          Yeah, you better watch out for the snakes instead.
      • Re:funny (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Mononoke (88668) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:41AM (#18655901) Homepage Journal
        Actually, ask anyone that knows how cell towers work, and your real explanation would become evident.
        Exactly. Every other explanation and excuse is crap. Unfortunately, solid technical reasons are never enough for most folks.
      • Re:funny (Score:5, Funny)

        by quick_dry_3 (112334) <steven@q[ ]kdry.net ['uic' in gap]> on Sunday April 08, 2007 @01:02PM (#18656481) Homepage

        Oh, and good luck with the E911 crap... In the course of a minute, you've gone from the east end of a major city to the west end according to the cells.


        Hello operator, I need a fire truck with a REEEALLY long ladder.


        Though if things are that big an emergency, when they need your location it'll be "that big smoking crater".

      • Re:funny (Score:5, Interesting)

        by w9wi (162482) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @01:14PM (#18656579)
        Yep. The coverage of even a small, low-powered VHF radio increases dramatically when operated from an aircraft.

        In the U.S., Class A FM broadcasting stations are limited to a power of 6,000 watts at a maximum antenna height of 100m. Higher antennas are allowed if the power is reduced to compensate. [fcc.gov]At an antenna elevation of 600m, power must be reduced to only 150 watts (?!) to achieve the same distance coverage. Translate those figures to a cell phone with a rated power of no more than 3 watts, and you're talking about limiting power to 0.08 watt at 600m.

        Of course, commercial aircraft fly a LOT higher than 600m!

        The cellular network has far more subscribers than it has channels. To work, it depends on the ability to reuse a channel throughout the service area. If I place a phone call from my home 40km northwest of Nashville, the same channel can be reused in downtown Nashville, and on the city's west side, and in Donelson, and Brentwood, and Smyrna, etc., etc... My phone, about 1.2m off the ground, has a range of only about 6km.

        If I place that call from an airplane flying 8,000m above my home, every base station in the greater Nashville area can receive my signals. Now, "my" channel cannot be reused at all.

        If it were just me, that wouldn't be a problem. If it were, say, 10% of the passengers on each flight - well, I don't think it's hard to see how that could use up all available channels in a hurry. New channels aren't cheap. Nextel is paying to replace [2ghzrelocation.com]almost *all* the microwave remote broadcast equipment in use by U.S. TV stations, so they can free up some remote broadcast spectrum for use as cellular-telephone channels.

        Here's an idea: allow calls from aircraft, but allow cellular providers to charge enough extra for airborne calls to cover their costs in adding more channels. I'll bet after the next billing cycle, the number of calls made from aircraft would plummet!
      • Many large cities have these things called mountians and tall buildings in the middle.

        If this was a serious problem they would at least have signs telling us not to use our cell phones in high places. Even if they could not enforce it it would help.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by multimediavt (965608)
        To add to your comment, because you are jumping towers so quickly (if you were even at an altitude where you could connect to one at all; cell towers have at most a 2km to 5km range folks, do the math) you would bring entire cell networks down as they tried to keep up with your (and everyone else on the plane's) signal traveling in excess of 300MPH. The whole "interfere with the airplane instruments" thing is bunk. The only thing critical that a cell phone *might* interfere with is the ILS system on appro
      • by King_TJ (85913) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @02:26PM (#18657103) Journal
        I've seen that same explanation stated several times before when this discussion came up. But the last time I read about it, I believe it was a message thread on HowardForums.com - a site specifically made to discuss cellphone technology. Many users there work in the industry in one capacity or another. One of the guys who claimed he worked on engineering the cell tower infrastructure said that this is really not a true statement. Yes, the phones are designed to communicate with any towers within range. BUT - the cell towers have the ability to handle situations such as a phone suddenly "appearing" on 40 towers at the same time. They have software that knows such things aren't possible in normal cellphone operation at ground level - so it ignores the signals on all but a few towers at a time.

        He claimed that in reality, this process doesn't "tax" the towers inordinately at all. The "bandwidth" tied up is no more than a regular call would tie up, since the towers are rejecting the extra instances of the connection to the phone. There's simply a small amount of overhead involved in the towers passing along the information to each other about the status of your connection.

        (I believe this type of software also comes into play for handling problems of "cloned" cellphones. If a connection shows up simultaneously on towers that are spread far apart, they know they're dealing with not just 1 legitimate phone, but also a duplicate in service elsewhere.)
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Mike McTernan (260224)

        Which technology are you describing? It doesn't sound accurate to me, but I'm familiar in only 3GPP standards.

        A GSM handset may monitor many cells at one time, basically reading some broadcast data (BSIC etc...) and monitoring the signal level, but it will only be transmitting to one cell at any one time. The broadcast channels from cell towers are constantly on, and an accepted overhead that makes the system work - monitoring these broadcast channels takes no bandwidth from other users.

        A WCDMA FDD han

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Ed Avis (5917)
        That cannot be the real reason. Why would it be the FAA's job and the airline's job to enforce that? Why would they care?
      • Cell tower troubles (Score:3, Interesting)

        by SoopahMan (706062)
        This is more or less the case. I was watching CSpan as a bill considering the use of laptops which connect over the cell network on airplanes was debated, and the debate got straight to the point: We should allow laptops because they are not intrusive, but no one likes a cell phone call on an airplane so the nuisance should continue to be banned. At no point during the Senate debate did anyone show proof of serious harm to the airplane or cell network from cell phone use, and it's interesting that no one ha
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Falrick (528)
        Actually, you're wrong.

        Cell phones don't try to talk to as many towers as they can. They generally have a relatively short list of towers that they are interested in at a time (active set). They may scan as many towers as they can hear at once, but then they'll only keep track of perhaps the top 3. Even then, they aren't in constant communication with them. Cell scanning doesn't require any involvement on the part of the tower itself. The tower will be generating a pilot signal. The pilot is sent at a kn
    • by symonty (233005) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:15AM (#18655647) Homepage
      With no players anymore in the US, Verizon out and aircell now offering Wifi instead of phone calls, this is not a reason.

      Also the only phones still avaliable on planes are run by ARINC and SITA, which both now have a picocell replacements under testing for installation this year.

      There is no technical nor marketing reason you can't have a cell phone on board, if cell phones were a real danger then they would not be in carry on allowance anymore.

      FAA is very conservative, and the FCC is a political body.

      That is all
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Goeland86 (741690)
        Believe it or not, but it's not the FAA or the airlines doing the cellphone testing.
        It's the aircraft manufacturers.
        Boeing and Airbus both run tests, and there IS interference with some of the more sensitive systems on the plane, like, duh, navigation. GPS is better at high altitudes, but when you have to get 6 data values from GPS, you need many more satellite receptions than for just location. Modern planes don't use just gyros for roll/pitch/yaw rates, they confirm it with GPS data. As one might expect,
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by fm6 (162816)

          I have no respect for people that don't try to understand the sensitivity of avionics and then reject every technical argument as "political cover-up".

          People like conspiracy theories. They're more emotionally satisfying than banal technical explanations. Take a popular urban legend, find somebody who believes it, and try to pick hobs in it. You'll get nowhere.

          My favorite example is the one about the bodies of all the dead construction workers buried in Hoover Dam, supposedly to conceal the high rate of accidental deaths on that project. Construction engineers have no patience with that one -- the builders went to a lot of trouble to control t

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by terrymr (316118)
          Hmmm - I was on a flight last year which was struck by lightning on final approach - I'm stunned that the planes systems can take massive broadband interference spikes from lightning without missing a beat and yet they are threatened by the milliwatts of signal from a cell phone.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Xtravar (725372)
            Well, not that I care one way or another, but...

            It's pretty easy to determine that your navigation equipment may be unreliable when it's lightning out. Not so much when someone is fiddling with their electronic device.
      • by RubberDogBone (851604) * on Sunday April 08, 2007 @05:34PM (#18658233)
        If cellphones were really really dangerous, we'd have aircraft graveyards everywhere, especially around airports.

        What do cellphones talk to? Cell towers. Where are those towers? EVERYWHERE, and they all operate at much higher power levels than any handset.

        If there was some sort of danger, cell tower signals from the ground -particularly towers near airports where they are always A LOT of such towers- would be knocking planes out of the sky on an hourly basis from miles away. Every airliner in the sky flies over hundreds of these towers on every flight. It would be like the worst anti-aircraft fire ever devised.

        But it doesn't happen.

        And cell towers are hardly the most powerful transmitters in the wild. A cell tower throws out a couple watts. A TV transmitter can throw out a million watts and there are thousands of those towers too.

        Aircraft operate happily amid a sea of RF and generally nothing goes wrong. So the idea that a wimpy little cell handset are threats are just overblown assumptions, unproven and unrealistic.
    • Not quite (Score:5, Interesting)

      by WindBourne (631190) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:40AM (#18655895) Journal
      My father is a retired Pilot (Air Force, then the American Airlines). Since I used to work for Jeppesen, we have had some interesting conversations about this. He has said that he has seen nav equipment messed with that the FAA said was cell phones. Now it was early 90's, and likely to be one of the analog phone, but they were not certain. But some of his old co-pilots (now all senior captains for American), says that several instruments will be interfered with from time to time and they believe it to be cell phone. In general, they claim that most of the interference occurs on the ground (i.e. as soon as the phones are turned on). Now, I do not know why that is, but I would want to make certain before allowing them to be used. It is possible that it is just one frequency or type of phone that is causing the issue. My question is, why has the FAA not determined where the issue is? ALPA is actively pushing against allowing the phone usage until FAA or FCC can explain what is causing this.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        I don't know exactly what's going on when a cell phone is transmitting data, or what or how that may interfere with instruments. I have, however, noticed something with my most recent phone which gives pause. In October of last year, I purchased a new Sony Ericson telephone. At the beginning of telephone calls (both incoming and outgoing) or when the phone connects to the Internet, some of the electronic audio devices in my house emit a low 'dee dee dee dee' tone. This has never happened with any other
    • Re:funny (Score:5, Funny)

      by Marillion (33728) <ericbardes@@@gmail...com> on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:21PM (#18656175)

      I'm pretty sure I don't agree with the crowd control theory either.

      In the six years I worked at an airline, I've never heard anyone speak of passengers as negatively as this article does.

  • RTFA. They realize that they would have passengers yapping loudly through entire flights oblivious to their neighbors who are getting ready to chuck them overboard? They rightly do not want their people in the middle of that.

    • by LighterShadeOfBlack (1011407) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:30AM (#18655799) Homepage
      Chuck them overboard?! Could we make them walk the plank aswell?

      Seriously, if that was really the reason then you'd have to ask why planes have reclining seats and music via headphones. Each of those is equally capable of being annoying.

      TFA's "they don't want testing because testing costs money" argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny either. Just because planes could be allowed to tested for phone usage doesn't mean planes would have to allow phones to be used. It would be up to the plane manufacturers to decide to have their plane designed and tested for that "feature" and then up to the airlines if they wanted to pay the inevitable extra cost for such a plane, and then of course pass that on in extra cost to the passengers.
  • by DarkFencer (260473) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:01AM (#18655523)
    There are already enough planes that have satellite television (including news channels) along with air phones (at a very high cost - yes but still a source of information.

    The real reason? Its bad enough when people are yapping on their phones constantly on the ground. Getting stuck on a plane near someone who won't shut up on the phone is MUCH MUCH worse due to the duration and the captive audience. For that reason I hope cell phones are never allowed (and if they are it should be a cell phone only section kept reasonable sound proof from the rest of the plane).
    • by Jeff DeMaagd (2015) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:29AM (#18655779) Homepage Journal
      Reception is very weak at best in mid-flight anyway. The only decent way to prevent people from using the phone on ascent or descent is to take them away, or better, turn the passenger cabin into a faraday cage.

      I think it was Jet Blue that had the situation where passengers could see the news about their flight through satellite TV, something about damaged landing gear. I don't remember anything about a crew or passenger mutiny in the news reports.
    • by GroundBounce (20126) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:41AM (#18655905)
      I believe this hits the real point. I travel a fair amount on business and spend enough time in airports to know that there are a significant number of people who would probably talk on their phones as continuously in flight as they do on the ground if given the chance, and these aren't just businesspeople. Either way you handle this in flight will be a problem. If cells can be used anywhere on the plane, there will be a big backlash of annoyed passengers; if they are confined to a few rows, they will annoy and interfere with each other which will encourage many of them to ignore the row designations and still cause problems for others; plus even if they don't, it will still be a problem for several "normal" rows adjacent to the cell phone section.

      Wifi on planes will be MUCH less of a problem in terms of annoyance to other passengers.

      Unfortunately, the best solution is the one that is already in place on some planes - a public pay phone in the seat. It costs money to use, so people won't use it idly, but important business and personal calls that justify the cost can still be made.

  • by OverlordQ (264228)
    'Nuff said.
  • It annoys me often enough to hear people always talking loudly to their cell phones when I sit in a bus or in a tram. Constant talking in an airplane would be a much bigger pain in the arse.
  • Easily Tested? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kannibal_klown (531544) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:02AM (#18655539)
    It might be easy in theory, but you need to think of scale. Take all of the cellphone manufacturers, during the course of a year a lot of cellphones are released. So each year you have a lot of cellphones to test. Then, the test itself isn't so clear-cut. Sure, that 1-year-old 737 might run fine, but what about the 7-year-old 737? It might have less around the electronics, or casual wear-and-tear might have left an opening. Put both factors together, and testing isn't so easy. Sure, it's possible but is it really worth the effort?
    • I would hope that any testing would test more than one piece of equipment on one airplane.
    • by G4from128k (686170) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:21AM (#18655703)
      It's worse than just the combinations of phones and planes. An aircraft makes a nice enclosed resonant space for cell signals to bounce around inside. Anyone who has looked at simulating or measuring RF fields would know that the field strength can vary by orders of magnitude depending on the exact location, orientation, and frequencies of the emitter and the exact orientation and location of the susceptible wiring or instrument. A tall person sitting in seat 6B with a CDMA phone may cause no problems, but a short person with a GSM phone in seat 32F could interfere with the automatic landing system. The field strength won't necessarily drop with distance inside the plane and may be focused to high levels anywhere inside the aluminum tube.

      And testing individual phones isn't sufficient. What happens when 100 people all use their phones at the same time.
    • Has been tested (Score:4, Informative)

      by DaveAtFraud (460127) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:02PM (#18656049) Homepage Journal
      The effect has been idependently tested and confirmed:

      http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06060/662669.stm [post-gazette.com]

      I think I'll trust real research from CMU over a vapid so-called journalist who probably just can't stand not yapping on his cell-phone.

      BTW, it doesn't matter if some or even nearly all cell phones don't cause interference with flight controls. All it takes is one person using one that does and things get ugly. Likewise, most airplanes have a mix of avionic equipment. Some of it is new where the cost/benefit makes it worth it for the airline to upgrade and some of it is old. Rather than test each airplane independently, it makes more sense to just say "no" until someone comes up with a way that is known to be absolutely safe regardless of the equipment on the airplane.

      Cheers,
      Dave
  • The only thing that could make my flights even more stressful than they already are (babies screaming, kids behind me hitting my seat, the person in front of me immediately putting their seat back, giving me no room to lean forward, etc...) would be someone sitting next to me, who does not apparently have the ability to control the volume of their voice, chatting away for the full 2 hours while I try to sleep. And to make matters worse, they'll probably be eating at the same time.

    I'd be ok with the cellph
    • by dheera (1003686) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:34AM (#18655839) Homepage
      I'm fine with babies screaming and people having conversations. I don't mind if cellphones can be feasibly allowed and people be required to keep their conversations to a whisper.

      What *does* bug me the most about travelling on planes:
      1. Fat people. No offense, but I feel like I have a right to my entire seat and 50% of the armrest. I don't mean to offend obese people, but if they cannot respect my rights to that space without elbows and legs brushing against me for the entire flight, they need to purchase a first class seat or two seats or something. No, it's *not* ok to plop yourself down and arrogantly and comfortably take up the entire both armrests on both sides of you. If you are fat, it's your fault. Period.

      2. Smelly people.

      3. People who aren't nice about travel needs (like having to get up to go to the bathroom, get up to walk around because you have a medical condition that requires you to), people who argue with flight attendants about stupid stuff ("No! I paid for this seat and I'm *not* moving" [even though an old woman really needs that seat])

      4. People who aren't nice to you. I was once on a flight and after the lights were turned off in cruising altitude, I slowly put my seat back to go to sleep. A couple of minutes later, the guy behind me started pounding on the seat, probably trying to tell me to put my seat back in the upright position. He didn't bother to talk at all, didn't bother to get up and at least signal at me nicely if he didn't speak English, he didn't do anything. He just kept pounding on my seat for the entire flight, periodically.

      5. People who rest their hands on the top of the seat in front of them, in a fashion that causes their fingers to touch the person's hair in front, and refuse to remove their hand.

      6. People who look so antisocial and angry-faced and silent that you can't figure out if they have some terrorist plot behind their eyes. Cheerful people are much easier to be around.

      7. People who think that a flight is the place to hit on girls.
  • If gadgets can't crash planes, then the ban is costing billions of hours per year of lost productivity by business people who want to work in flight.

    Millions of man hours in playing solitaire/minesweeper is costing billions per year in lost productivity and taxes for the government. I say that the FAA and FCC get together and put a ban on these, especially while in flight.
  • They tested this [wikipedia.org] on Mythbusters and had difficulty getting phones to interfere even in contrived scenarios such as at point blank range, with very old navigation equipment.

    I've never heard of any incident where navigation equipment was actually affected by a cell phone in the real world. Wouldn't you think if it were even possible, it would have happened at least once?

    Recently I was on a flight where this chick yacked on some business call for almost 30 minutes while we were waiting to back out from the gat
    • by user24 (854467)
      You really didn't RTFA, did you? Look at page 3, where they state:

      The TV show MythBusters "busted" as a myth the conventional wisdom that phones interfere with avionics.
  • by user24 (854467) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:07AM (#18655587) Homepage
    Crowd Control? People getting annoyed at other people using cellphones? Perhaps historically, but look at page 2:

     

    "However, the airlines know that some kind of plane-to-ground communication is coming, and they want to profit from it ... Airlines would prefer that phones be banned while they come up with new ways to charge for communication, such as the coming wave of Wi-Fi access"


    Bingo!

    however:
     

    "So the ban remains in place because the government can't seem to come up with definitive answers."

    you know, I'd rather the government (of whichever country) err on the side of caution, actually: "Well, we can't tell whether cellphones might cause crashes, so we'll just allow them and see what happens"?

    Bottom line for me: people are annoying with cellphones. Now imagine sitting next to the guy talking shite for all 12 hours of a long haul flight. I'd hijack the plane just to shut him up. Keep the ban, people can surely live without cellphones for the duration of a flight... surely?
  • by Aeonite (263338) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:08AM (#18655599) Homepage
    If gadgets can't crash planes, then the ban is costing billions of hours per year of lost productivity by business people who want to work in flight.

    What the author completely fails to address is the noise that ensues if you have ten businesspeople in first class all "doing business" on a cell phone at the same time. Are they supposed to wander the aisles and pace as they talk? Or merely talk over one another in increasingly loud voices?

    There's something about a long tube that seems to suggest to people that maybe conversation should be kept to a minimum. Not only planes, but buses and subways and trains too. In my experience riding public transit, most people do not chatter on their phones endlessly. In part, I think, because there's an unconscious realization that the guy standing 6 inches away (that you can't move away from) does not want or need to hear your prattle.
    • Doubtful (Score:3, Informative)

      by grahamsz (150076)
      I manage to work on almost every business flight I take. Mostly by collecting and printing stuff that i need to read and learn, or by sitting with a notebook brainstorming technical problems. Occassionally (if i have a decent amount of leg room) then i'll pull out the laptop and do some actual coding.

      It takes a little planning to find something to do but it's really not hard to make semi-productive use of that time.
    • by cowscows (103644) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:25AM (#18655741) Journal
      It's not an unconscious realization, it's common freakin' curtesy. But out of the thousands of people who fly each day, there's still going to be hundreds of ignorant assholes who are either too self-absorbed to realize, or to selfish to care. Flying is already an intense and intimidating experience for many people, long flights are generally uncomfortable and borderline miserable. Ever ride on a plane with a baby in a nearby seat? That can be annoying as all hell, but babies cry, they can't know any better, and so I deal with it. But if someone was talking loudly on their cell phone for a half hour, subjecting everyone around them to half of their conversation, I just don't know if I could take it.

      As for billions in lost productivity (that number sounds rather high to me) because of people flying, big freakin' deal. Businesses have existed for thousands of years without cell phones, a few hours disconnected here and there won't put our economy into a recession.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by jimicus (737525)
        I just don't know if I could take it.

        Calmly take the cellphone, push it down your underpants and give it a good rub around there. Hand it back, smiling silently.

        I guarantee that you won't have to worry about that person putting the cellphone anywhere near their face for the remainder of the flight.
  • Cell hopping? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by growse (928427) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:11AM (#18655615) Homepage
    I was always under the impression that a mobile phone travelling at 500+ mph on a plane would be hopping from network cell to cell fairly regularly (once every few seconds?). This sort of frequent handover would then a) make it difficult to make, receive and conduct a call and b) cause issues for the phone networks if you've got num_people_per_plane * num_planes_in_sky_over_country people's phones all doing the same hops fairly regularly. Meh.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Jeff DeMaagd (2015)
      If they are doing their job, the antennas should be optimized for the horizontal, meaning that the signal from above is going to be very weak.
  • by ChaosDiscord (4913) * on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:26AM (#18655751) Homepage Journal

    Mike Elgan, the article's author brushes off the problem of an airborne cell phone seeing a large number of cell towers at once. He claims it could be easy to fix with a software upgrade to the towers. Nonsense. The fundamental problem is that there is only a finite range of frequencies for cell phone calls. The more towers a given phone's signal is visible to, the more towers whose frequencies you're chewing up. Redesigning the system to support cell calls would be massively expensive. Is the value of being able to make cell calls from a plane really that valuable? Who is going to pay for the overhaul? Elgan is just whining.

    Elgan points out that Europe is working on making this work. Tellingly, they're not just letting the phones connect to towers normally; they're shielding the cabin and routing connections through dedicated on-plane hardware. This is reasonable as it means you have a single source (the plane's hardware) that can far more efficiently utilize tower frequency space. Furthermore, the cost of making the changes falls on the airlines, who will pass it on to the logical people: the fliers who want to use this service.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by koreth (409849) *
      Plus, Europe doesn't have a bunch of competing cell phone standards to deal with. It's much easier to equip planes with cell-tower equivalents when you only have to do GSM. An American carrier that wanted to provide all its customers with cell service would have to support a couple of extra signal types, presumably making it more expensive.
  • by nhtshot (198470) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:36AM (#18655861) Homepage
    I posted this to the original article as well, but I felt the slashdot community might derive some value from it as well. The interference issue is a VERY real one. I can't emphasize this enough. It's easy to debate this issue on the ground, but try debating it 2 miles above the ground when your only lifeline is a thin needle on a panel that is controlled by a radio transmitter on the ground. I have a personal experience with cellphone nav interaction. I've also watched the mythbusters episode. Everyone here knows that mythbusters, while entertaining, is not entirely scientific. I certainly am not willing to stake my life on the thoroughness of their conclusions.

    Without further prefacing, here is my original post:

    You mention in your article that "Many headsets used by private pilots come with jacks for using them with cell phones. The manufacturers say they're for use on the ground only. But many private pilots use them in the air without incident."

    I fall into this category. However, I've also seen the dangers of airborne cell phone use. I carry a Nextel branded Blackberry. From my experience, it's not a very good phone to use on board an aircraft. About every 20 minutes or so, the phone goes into a signal frenzy. It's as if it finds multiple strong towers to connect to and is unable to choose. This results in a barrage of beeps and lights while it tries to figure out what's going on.

    Furthermore, the risks of interference are very real. When I'm using the phone, I never notice the interference. I recently let someone else use my phone and was very surprised. My headset (flight radio headset) emitted a horrible scratching noise. I was totally unable to hear anything on the radio. I quickly looked at my VOR (radio navigation, NOT a gps) , and noticed that it was off coarse as well. Now, had I not been certain that I was on the right course, I might have well thought I was off course and corrected in an ultimately wrong direction.

    I'm not sure if you're familiar with VOR technology, but it's the primary aviation navigational aid. GPS is wonderful, but it's still not the primary navigation mechanism. GPS is considered a "non-precision" navigation tool. VOR and ILS are still the primary mechanisms and they are dependent upon terrestrial radio transmissions. This is where the cellphone interference comes into play. Most cell phones operate in the 800mhz range. I'll save you a lesson in radio technology by simply stating that they can often have harmonic emissions in the same bands as used for aircraft navigation.

    While you state that countless numbers of phones are left on during flights, this is not particularly dangerous. A phone ranging a tower is only actively transmitting for a very short period of time every 20 minutes or so at regular speeds. A phone that is in active use is a source of radio emissions that is in VERY close proximity to the aircraft communications and navigation antennas and is operating on a frequency that can have interfering harmonics. I have personal experience with the reactions a nav needle can have to a cellphone.

    Imagine if the weather was bad (instrument meteorological conditions or IMC) and you were trying to land a large passenger airliner using nothing but a small needle on the panel to align with the runway. Then, a passenger starts talking to their uncle Bill about his bypass surgery and that needle jumps even 10 degrees off position. Now, instead of aligning with a runway, you're aligning with a corn field.

    To answer your thoughts about shielding, that's not a viable solution. You would either have to shield the passenger cabin from radio emissions or shield the comm/nav antennas from it. In either case, the shielding to protect them from each other would seriously impair their usefulness. A passenger cabin shielded from RF emissions wouldn't allow your cell signal to get out, thereby negating the purpose. Shielding the comm/nav antennas sounds like a good idea until you realize that oftentimes nav aids and aircraft controllers a
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by beeblebrox (16781)

      Disclaimer: I have absolutely no pilot training, however I do write software for mobile phones as well as networking apps in general.

      While you state that countless numbers of phones are left on during flights, this is not particularly dangerous. A phone ranging a tower is only actively transmitting for a very short period of time every 20 minutes or so at regular speeds.

      With the "legacy" cell app - voice - that is true. However, with wireless broadband becoming more common and affordable, application

  • by Himuanam (852822) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:39AM (#18655883)
    From the IEEE's Spectrum magazine last year, they actually measured RF signals on flights and reported on the results. No smoking gun where an accident was caused by a cell phone, but still interesting nonetheless (and no ads!). http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/mar06/3069 [ieee.org]
  • by freeweed (309734) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:31PM (#18656245)
    I just flew on a bunch of different planes in the past week, and a couple of them had the control tower chatter actually broadcast on one of the channels of the in-flight entertainment system.

    It was actually pretty cool to hear the various airplanes yak with the tower. O'hare is a busy airport (to say the least), and it was astounding to listen to them juggle all the incoming planes. What was particularly funny was listening to them berate our pilot - the guy mumbled a bit, so the flight number kept getting cut off. The tower had to repeatedly ask him to repeat, and eventually they started making fun of him. Things like "well, this particular pilot doesn't feel he's important enough to respond to us". Tres droll.

    Also cool was listening to the tower give directions (turn left, etc) and feel the plane immediately respond. All in all, it sounded pretty much exactly like it does on TV/movies. I'm sure if there were any actual flight emergencies, it would have been broadcast for the passengers to hear - unless there's some protocol to shut that channel down when things go amiss - which would just alert passengers to a problem anyway.
  • IEEE Spectrum had an article about this last year ( http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/mar06/3069 [ieee.org] ); the authors actually sampled in-flight RF data and reviewed some related publications. They also discussed the current reporting methods for HED interference and discussed some of the reports. Bottom line for those that don't want to read the whole article: some cell phones and other devices emit innocuous signals that pose no significant danger, while _other_ cell phones and devices pose significant risks of interfering with avionic electronics, depending on the frequencies they use. This inconsistency alone is a problem. "Sure, you can use your AT&T phone, ma'am. I'm sorry sir, you have to turn your Sprint phone off or we're all going to die". The FCC and FAA do not work with each other (as a rule of thumb), so both the technical and regulatory issues can conflict with one another.

    It's a good article for the layperson, I'd encourage reading it.
  • by tcgroat (666085) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:45PM (#18656361)

    TFA says:

    Also: If real testing were done, and the nature of the problem fully understood, it would become obvious that airplanes could be designed or retrofitted with shielding and communications systems that would enable safe calling through all phases of flight. But that would cost money.

    Real testing has been done. Unintended emissions from the phone have been identified as the culprit, not a deficiency in the navigation equipment. The aircraft's receivers are doing exactly what they are supposed to, responding to signals of certain frequencies arriving at the antenna. Once the phone pollutes the spectrum with spurious signals, nothing can protect the receiver. The shielding and filtering must be applied at the problem, which is the phone. Since the competitive consumer phone market demands the lowest possible cost, once a phone meets the minimum legal requirements they won't add another dime of product cost for further interference control.

    Intereference does not occur every time, but when it does occur there has been a demonstrable cause and effect relationship. Start with this NASA case study [nasa.gov](long pdf warning).

    In July 2003, it was reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that a cellular phone when turned on simultaneously interfered with three different aircraft GPS receivers, causing complete signal loss. The three GPS receivers were using three separate antennas, and were installed on a small aircraft. The phone was on, however, calls were not made during the incidents and subsequent tests. [emphasis added]

    In an email message to the FAA, the company who owned the airplane reported the subsequent tests taken to prove a clear and convincing direct relationship between the phone being in ON-mode, and interference with the three onboard GPS systems. The company verified several times, in multiple flights over different days, that the interference problem could be recreated reliably in the air by having the phone turned on. The interference disappeared when the phone was turned off or covered behind a metal object, and re-appeared when turned on or brought into the open again. In addition, the company conducted tests at two different places to ensure that it was not dependent on location, and were able to reproduce the interference effects at both. The interference occurred when the plane was in the air, but not on the ground. Tests using other phones did not create interference problems on the same aircraft and systems.

    Then consider this article from Spectrum [ieee.org]. On page 3:

    Our data and the NASA studies suggest to us that there is a clear and present danger: cellphones can render GPS instrument useless for landings. Clearly, the cause of the problem is that the FCC issues RF emission standards for consumer electronics, conferring only minimally with the FAA and with no formal consideration of the implications of those standards for the aircraft environment. For its part, the FAA relies on the airlines to initiate safety plans and, like other government agencies, defers to the FCC on questions of electromagnetic radiation.

    And from page 4:

    All in all, we found 125 entries in the ASRS [Aviation Safety Reporting System] database that reported PED interference. Of these, 77 were considered highly correlated, based on the description of observed PED use and interference occurrence.[emphasis added] The reports included cases of critical aircraft systems such as navigation and throttle settings being affected. Based on the random sample entries from 1995 to 2001, we estimate that the average number of reported interference events might be as high as 23 per year.

    It's no conspiracy, and no urban lege

  • What I want... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by The Living Fractal (162153) <banantarr&hotmail,com> on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:46PM (#18656365) Homepage
    So this is like.. tangentially OT.

    But, how much money could I make if I started a business that installed Faraday cages into movie theaters? Could I completely block all cell traffic with one? And could I install the cages relatively cheap and keep them invisible? See, I know there's been talk amongst movie theaters of using jammers to stop cell phone use. But the FCC is against that and it doesn't look like it's going to happen. But can the FCC stop me from constructing a faraday cage around my theater to 'ensure the highest degree of fidelity of the digital projection equipment, thereby ensuring the best viewing experience'?

    I'll tell you what, if I know one theater in town has faraday cages and the others don't.. I'm goin to the one with the cages.

    A lot of people argue that they need their cell phones during a movie in case of emergency situations. I think that's bullshit. For decades people managed to go to movie theaters without cell phones. They accepted there might be emergencies happening that they weren't aware of until after they left the theater. They accepted this because whenever an emergency happens and you are twenty minutes from the scene you are 99% of the time too late anyway.

    Someone enlighten me here, what kind of emergency can you really expect to respond to fast enough to make a difference by racing out of a theater to the scene of the emergency? By the time you get there either the emergency is over or people who are supposed to handle that sort of thing (you know, EMT, Firefighters, professionals...) have already done so. But please, give me an example of how I could be wrong. I'm curious. There has to be something.

    TLF
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Or just buy a few of these and install them:
      http://www.phonejammer.com/ [phonejammer.com]

      Pay some kid to walk around the place and sit in every seat with a cellphone from carrier to see if they still get signal.

      Much easier than putting a copper mesh over the entire theater and worrying about holes.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      But, how much money could I make if I started a business that installed Faraday cages into movie theaters?

      First, you have to figure out how many theatres will pays the tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars you'll have to charge. I'd imagine the number [of theatres] isn't very large. (IOW, I think you seriously underestimate the difficulty of installing and maintaining Farady cages.)

      I'll tell you what, if I know one theater in town has faraday cages and the others don

  • by jpellino (202698) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:54PM (#18656419)
    IIRC a cell tower covers a geographic area of 36 sq mi, and assuming that's a circle (I know they effectively chart them as hexagons, but...) if that's true, the radius, given pi r ^2 for area, sqrt(36/pi) = 3.64 miles. That's only 19,000 ft. Sure, straight line would be better than terrestrial terrain, but above 19,000 you're heading out of range anyway, not to mention rapidly switching cells (400 mph = 6+ mi/sec)

    If that were the case, it'd be torches and pitchforks for the cellcos if they allow it and then it sucks.

  • Testing Isn't Easy (Score:4, Informative)

    by Helmholtz Coil (581131) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:59PM (#18656459) Journal
    Speaking as someone who's tried to get gear flight certified, I can tell you that testing is never easy. Granted, it's definitely easier to get something approved that isn't going to be part of the plane but rather just another carry-on, but there's still a lot of work involved.

    I think it probably boils down to cost and caution. The testing is expensive, and nobody wants to be the one that approved cell phones if they end up causing a plane crash.

  • by Chris Carollo (251937) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @01:56PM (#18656923)
    I fully believe that cell-phones can interfere with aircraft nav systems (the fact that they interfere with PC speakers and conference-call microphones is plenty of evidence for me).

    However, there's also a restriction on hand-held TVs/radios and GPSs, and I've always wondered why, since they're all receive-only. I don't see how it's possible for them to cause any interference (or at least no more interference than a laptop computer) since they're only picking up on signals that are already passing through the plane from an external source.

    So, does anyone have any info on why those are banned as well?
  • by TermV (49182) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @02:41PM (#18657209)
    If cell phones and two-way pagers indeed had the ability to interfere with aircraft to a point where it compromises safety then the TSA should be confiscating them rather than bottled water and toothpaste. At least it's a more plausible threat than "liquid explosives". Perhaps the fact they are *not* confiscating them is telling.

    Actually I'd like to see that. Confiscating a bunch of inexpensive water bottles in the name of security is a relatively benign way of maintaining the appearance of security. Being willing to risk massive public fallout by confiscating expensive cell phones would show they are actually serious.
  • by FlamingLaird (245347) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @02:50PM (#18657249)
    I can verify from personal experience that MY cell phone does cause interference with radios. I'm a Private Pilot and I have a two year old Sony Ericsson. If I forget to turn the phone off, I can hear a cycling beep sound in my headset every time the phone is transmitting (i.e. ranging to a new cell tower or checking my email etc.) The VHF set also shows that it's receiving, so its actually picking something up through the antenna.

    It's not particularly loud, and I haven't had any trouble hearing ATC over it. On a commercial jet... with several hundred cell phones, and the much higher importance of ATC calls under IFR... I can see where it could be a major problem.

    Are there ways to solve the problem? Sure. Is it really worth spending the resources to test and resolve in light of the social factors? I'd say no. I personally consider time spent on commercial flights as downtime. I don't want people to be able to get ahold of me, I want to read a book or watch a good movie.

    If you really are important enough you HAVE to be in communication 24/7... well buy your own jet =)
  • Calling bullshit... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ididerus (898803) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @04:36PM (#18657887) Homepage
    I can tell you the TRUE reason cell phones are not allowed on airplanes.

    I fly on Air Force flights, which are not subject to FAA regulations, and the main problem with cell phones on airplanes is the fact that they DO NOT WORK. The transmitter in your phone is not powerful enough to reach more than say, 1000m. Your phone will go dead at less than 10,000 ft of elevation. Add this to the fact that cell towers are not powerful enough to reach the average cruising altitude of ~30,000 ft.

    Fear of instrument interference was due to older, analog units with less defined spectrum. With ALL equipment in aircraft being shielded these days there is almost NO possibility of a disturbance in flight.

    Besides, your 50mW transmitter is no match for, oh, the sun. And all the other background noise that is present in our atmosphere these days. I would bet that the electric motors on the landing gear ( or hydraulic pumps that may power them) put out more EMF in just about every frequency known to man than all the cell phones that might be in call at once.
  • by myowntrueself (607117) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @04:53PM (#18657983)
    If there is a 'real' reason for no cellphones on planes, I think its about time we found out the *real* reason people are not allowed to bring decent quantities of drinking water on planes.

    It is, surely, trivial to test whether a given substance is H2O. I mean, how hard can it be?

    It is, surely, trivial to test whether the container has got a false top containing water and the rest of it contains some other (possibly explosive) substance. Those xrays give pretty detailed views plus you could push a probe down the mouth of the bottle and wave it about. They do this to passengers all the time.

    Therefore there has to be a reason why passengers are not allowed to bring *water* onto planes.

    One theory is that the homeland security guys figured out a way to harm an aircraft by pouring enough water into or onto a certain area of the passenger compartment of the plane; flooding it with a conductive fluid.

    Any other offers?
     

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