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The Real Reasons Phones Are Kept Off Planes 642

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 ) <> on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:00PM (#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.
  • Easily Tested? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kannibal_klown ( 531544 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:02PM (#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?
  • by sholden ( 12227 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:03PM (#18655549) Homepage

    If we use cellphones, then TEH TERRORISTS HAVE WON!!!!11!!eleven!!

    Congratulations on coming up with the exact opposite meaning to the one that the statement obviously is supposed to convey.
  • by LBArrettAnderson ( 655246 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:06PM (#18655579)
    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 cellphone/no cellphone section division, though. That would be cool. Or maybe a special room for people talking on the phone. That way, I could use it without bothering anyone else if I absolutely have to make a call.
  • by user24 ( 854467 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:07PM (#18655587)
    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"



    "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 @12:08PM (#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.
  • Cell hopping? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by growse ( 928427 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:11PM (#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:Crowd control (Score:2, Insightful)

    by maxume ( 22995 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:11PM (#18655617)
    I have a cell phone because it is a cheap and convenient way to have a phone number. It costs me $20 and it works in most of the places I go. I can turn it off whenever I want. There isn't anyone who can call me and make me do anything. So at best, they are *probably* another servant on a leash!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:11PM (#18655623)
    Fully agree. Why do people focus on the technical aspects of this? It's the same reason you're asked to turn your phones off in a movie theater: because there are OTHER PEOPLE AROUND.

    How is this such a hard concept to grasp? It would be nice, though, if the FCC or FAA released a statement along those lines, but it might give them some unwanted feedback... I mean, who's going to admit that the real reason is because people, on the whole, are inconsiderate turds?
  • by symonty ( 233005 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:20PM (#18655685) Homepage
    This is a technical reason for a regulatory body to ban a technology?
    Next ... I hate the stupid people on the internet and so I think the internet should be banned too!
  • ELMER (Score:1, Insightful)

    by 100 Percent Troll ( 734434 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:21PM (#18655693)
    'Smore said?
  • by G4from128k ( 686170 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:21PM (#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.
  • by cowscows ( 103644 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:25PM (#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.
  • by Carbonite ( 183181 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:27PM (#18655761)
    In my experience, people tend to talk louder on cell phones than when talking to the person next to them. It's probably to compensate for a perceived lack of clarity in the connection.
  • Re:funny (Score:3, Insightful)

    by senatorpjt ( 709879 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:27PM (#18655763)
    I'd rather have people talking on phones than screaming kids, and they never seem to do anything about that.

  • Re:funny (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mononoke ( 88668 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @12:41PM (#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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 08, 2007 @01:11PM (#18656115)
    You obviously never heard about this []. I believe this level of fear and response would be greatly increased if people were hearing stuff from the ground or using it for web surfing. The idea is that it would give people a lot of people information that might cause panic, and a mass panic on an airplane is not exactly a good place to have one.

    Also, this fear the web thing is a bit over-stated on your part, considering some planes are going to begin having internet access, which short of shoots down the entire argument of this guy. There is far more information available via the internet then in any phone call. I think the real reason is they do not want to have any people chattering away and people complaining about them talking too loudly.

    As for your terrorists comment, you simply ignore what the author is trying to say. He is saying this lack of wireless devices on airplanes is bullshit, because if they would take down planes, terrorists would have tested every device possible to try to interfere with equipment and see if you cannot bring a plane to the ground. You really should spend less time at Digg.
  • Re:Cell hopping? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Jeff DeMaagd ( 2015 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @01:47PM (#18656369) Homepage Journal
    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.
  • 9-11? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 08, 2007 @01:47PM (#18656373)
    I could misremember, but weren't cell phones used by the folks resisting the terrorists on 9-11?

    I seem to remember reports that the passengers used them to learn of the other attacks, and chose to resist, rather than letting the terrorists hit a 3rd target.
  • by jpellino ( 202698 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @01:54PM (#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.

  • Re:The Real Reason (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Evets ( 629327 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @01:56PM (#18656443) Homepage Journal
    Everybody here has entirely too much faith in the electronics that are in place in commercial aircraft.

    The wiring on board is all exceptionally thin and shielded poorly - per spec, and on a great deal of commercial planes the wiring has significant corrosion.

    An industry wide test for interference factors may not indicate a great deal of problems with cell phones, but it would end up resulting in the requirement for replacing the wiring in a great deal of airplanes, at an impressive cost - because planes would have to be grounded (losing revenue from air travel), gutted, re-wired, and re-certified.

    If they thought it was one or two planes, the airlines might suck up the cost (assuming crowd control and airphone revenue were not factors), but we're talking hundreds of planes, if not thousands.

    The fear of having hundreds of planes grounded in order to allow cell phones is the primary factor pushing against it. Everything else is window dressing.
  • Re:funny (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kizeh ( 71312 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @02:16PM (#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.
  • by 0123456789 ( 467085 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @02:40PM (#18656775) that no-one, including the people who make the decision about phones on planes, wants to spend their next long-haul flight next to someone yakking on their phone for the entire time.

    As someone who regularly flies across the Atlantic, I thank them.

  • by moikka ( 1085403 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @04:19PM (#18657465)
    The network transmits neighbour-cell lists to mobile. Mobile makes measurements for all the neighbouring cells and request a transfer to another cell if it is stronger. The neighbour lists are separate for each operator. If the mobile is connected to one operator, it receives the neighbour list for that operator cells only. Even if there is other operator cells around, the mobile does not try to connect to them unless it determines it has completely lost contact to network and tries to determine whether there exist other networks it could use. The system in the planes works so that there is completely separate operator network inside the plane and the neighbour-list for it is empty. The one basestation in the plane can easily be made so strong that the mobile never has a need try to search for other networks. In this way the mobile never tries to contact the cell phone network on the surface of the earth.
  • by moikka ( 1085403 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @04:25PM (#18657493)
    There is one more important point. The tansmit signal of the mobile interferes other cells even if the mobile is not trying to communicate with them. The very short distance to the basestation in the plane causes the mobile transmit at very low poer so that the signal is too weak to cause interference on earth. The situation is totally different without the basestation in the plane. In this case the mobile would try to transmit at maximum power so that the basestation on earth could hear it causing maximum interference to other cells at earth.
  • Re:funny (Score:5, Insightful)

    by arivanov ( 12034 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @04:37PM (#18657575) Homepage
    The truth is that:

    1. Old airbus models had severe interference problems from old pre-GSM cellular network phones. That has been confirmed many times. I have seen that myself in the early 90-es.
    2. No test has ever proven any GSM phone to interfere with plane equipment (do not care about the US ragtag of network spagetty).
    3. A modern GSM base station (and EU style 3G node B) is small enough to be put on a plane. If there is a local BTS it can enforce power control criteria on any phone which it camps on. Further to this, there is at least one reject code which will shutdown and lock up a phone solid with its radio off (only really old Samsungs violate the spec and reboot, rest follows it). So having phone support and local kit on the planes is actually beneficial as it allows airlines to ensure that "interfering" mobiles are powered down to their lowest possible transmit power or are outright off.
    4. The commercial reason for not having mobiles on planes is easily resolved once again by putting basestations and the airline entering into a special roaming agreement with an operator. Plenty of Timbuktu GSM operators to do so, some are actively looking into entering these partnerships. Once again - the US ragtag of cellular non-standard networks is the loser. The airline skims a portion of an outright exorbitant roaming fee and everyone is a happy camper. There is a number of airlines that already have the kit in place and/or are testing it. There are also more than one company producing these as well.

    So it all boils down to crowd control and to the airline ensuring that it does not end up on the receiving end of a lot of angry customers who have just received a 90$+ phone bill for a 10 minute call from the inlaw while on the plane.

    This and the fear of "organised terrorists". Not that it is possible as the current generation of kit will run any voice channels all the way to the ground and back for an in-plane call. As a result anyone trying to organise a "terrorist attack" will simply fail as the plane will run out of channels to the ground right away. This is also the reason why the producers of this type of kit keep targeting the plane market and not the much more lucrative cruise ship and ferry market. A cruise ship is not subject to stupid FAA restrictions, but it has a disproportionately large proportion of local calls (where are you, I am in bar on level 7, ok, I am on level 3).
  • by BRUTICUS ( 325520 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @05:01PM (#18657709)
    I can't believe it...Everyone knows that the passengers on United 93 never actually spoke to anyone on the ground it was all part of the elaborate hoax by GWB part of his plan to get more oil.... GOSH.....

    j/k i just really can't stand people who say that you can't make phone calls as if that even supports their ridiculous argument.
  • Re:I doubt it (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mikael ( 484 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @06:47PM (#18658309)
    1) Paranoia by the FAA about malfunctioning devices (which is valid, BTW-- it doesn't usually cause a problem but I have seen radio intererence from many other devices that you wouldn't expect).

    Both Boeing and Eurobus have test rigs of the actual aviation equipment in their development sites (seen on Discovery channel). It shouldn't be too difficult for someone to wave a mobile phone around to see what equipment it interferes with.

  • 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:funny (Score:4, Insightful)

    by billcopc ( 196330 ) <> on Sunday April 08, 2007 @07:12PM (#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:What I want... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Sunday April 08, 2007 @07:18PM (#18658501) Homepage

    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't.. I'm goin to the one with the cages.

    Sure - if the one with the cages is showing the movie I want to see.
  • by sholden ( 12227 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @08:05PM (#18658811) Homepage
    988738/12227 =~ 81

    Just saying...

  • by Xtravar ( 725372 ) on Sunday April 08, 2007 @11:59PM (#18659973) Homepage Journal
    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 digitig ( 1056110 ) on Monday April 09, 2007 @12:15AM (#18660033)

    Planes are not "safe" or "unsafe"; there's a contunuum of risk, the risk is never zero, and different people will tolerate different levels of risk. The regulators have the job of mediating between those different tolerances, presumably taking a steer from the respective governments and certainly taking a steer from international treaties particularly those relating to ICAO.

    The upshot is that apparently the FAA considers the risk of uncontrolled cellphone use too high, but that the ban on the use brings that risk down to a tolerable level. The fact that the occasional phone will be left on is factored into that risk.

    Look at the reasons the article gave for banning phones:

    • "The airlines fear "crowd control" problems" (no evidence given)
    • "Cell phone and tower designs are based on the assumption that at any given time, only a few cell towers will be close to any specific phone" (which, as the article says, would cost. Who will pay?)
    • "If it's determined that some devices do cause problems, all gadgets would have to do extra certification testing" (and cabin crew would presumably have to check the certification of every device that passengers want to use, because there are a lot of devices already out there).
    • No FCC or FAA chairman wants to sign off a change in the rules because if a cell phone does cause either an airplane crash or a cell tower computer system crash, they don't want to be blamed (though this is within the normal scope of their risk management responsibilities, so if the evidence were there they'd surely do it just like they do for everything else. Who's going to pay to get the evidence?)
    • "If just 1% of these passengers accidentally or deliberately leaves their cell phones on, that means some 20,000 cell phones remain on during flights every single day. Despite this, no crash has ever been definitively attributed to cell phone or gadget interference." Well, if cellphones were the only possible cause of an accident for the entire flight, and you could reverse the claim "no crash has ever been definitively attributed to cell phone or gadget interference" (in safety managemanet the onus of proof is on those who introduce a new risk to show that it's tolerable), and if you're content with the international minimum safety standards (most western states are not), and if you know that the risk of cellphone use is linear with the number of cellphones used (the effect on the avionics of having 200 cellphones turned on is 200 times the risk of having one cellphone turned on) then you could have 95% confidence that use of cellphones is tolerably safe in just over 4 years. If we make just one of those assumptions more realistic -- that the risk due to cellphones would be one of, say, 100 possible causes, then you need 400 years data to make an argument. Outsiders to the field don't realise the significance of the small numbers we deal with in aviation safety; "It's been done and didn't cause an accident" just doesn't cut it.
    • "Interference problems could be overcome with well-understood techniques of shielding, reprogramming and other technology designed to facilitate safe calls." Sure. Who's going to pay? That shielding weighs, so it's not just a one-off cost.
    • "Either phones and other gadgets can crash airplanes or they can't." Oh, please. This is pure sensationalism from somebody who appears to be clueless about safety management. Nothing, I repeat nothing has zero risk. Any activity on a plane has the possibility of causing an accident given a sufficiently bizarre scenario. Safety management is about managing risk, not completely eliminating it.
    • "What's to stop terrorists from testing various gadgets, finding the ones with the highest levels of interferences, then turning on dozens of them at some crucial phase of flight, such as during a landing in bad weather?" And maybe increase the risk of an accident from one in ten million (the ICAO target level of safety) to one in a million? Yeah, sure. I'm quaki

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