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Cell Phone Calls In-Flight

Q: We keep hearing how the rules prohibiting inflight cell phone use will soon be relaxed. What are your thoughts on this, and does it not prove that the rules have been unnecessary all along?

Remember when smoking was permitted on airplanes, and one could be relegated to those rearmost, lung-blackening quarters simply by virtue of checking in late? Which is the greater torture, I have to wonder, the middle seat in a row of chainsmokers, or enduring the mad chatter of 200 simultaneous cellphone conversations? Certainly there are many who fail to see the wisdom here, but according to industry surveys, this is what flyers want.

On the typical air travel journey, the existing sensory bombardment is overwhelming enough, a cacophony that begins the moment we step into the terminal: Public address admonishments to report suspicious packages; airline staff squawking unintelligibly of late arrivals and weather delays; those overvolumed gateside televisions blaring CNN Airport News. For me at least, colic stricken infants and the safety demo notwithstanding, the airplane cabin is a refuge of relative silence. Enjoy it while it lasts, for the restrictions on cell phones indeed will be lifted, though exactly when, and how fully, is not yet known. Expect two to three years of testing, development, and legal wrangling.

Pending any official changes, bear in mind that the onboard technology needed to ensure safe and reliable service is not presently in place. Until it is, the prohibition is neither one of convenience, nor a scam to make you splurge on pricey onboard satellite phones. “The day after USA Today ran a front page story on the proposed changes,” laments a flight attendant, “I witnessed coworkers receiving tremendous resistance from many passengers when asked to switch off their phones. Please let the public know that just because the media says it will happen doesn’t mean the regulations have already changed, or aren’t necessary.”

To review from an earlier column: Cockpit hardware and software use radio transmissions for a number of tasks. Even if not actively connected, a cell phone’s power-on mode dispatches bursts of data able to garble signals. One report cites a regional jet forced to make an emergency landing after a fire warning sounded. Investigation revealed the alarm had been triggered by a ringing phone in the luggage compartment. Interference is also suspected in the unsolved crash of a Crossair commuter plane near Zurich in 2000. Some believe the autopilot system, under the influence of a spurious cell signal, sent the plane into a dive just after takeoff.

(There’s little evidence that laptops pose much threat, though a poorly shielded computer can, in theory, transmit harmful energy. Like any other carry-on, computers have to be stowed for takeoff and landing not solely to preclude signal trouble, but to prevent them from becoming 200 mile-per-hour projectiles.)

Having said all that, interference is rare, and is liable to be subtle and minor, brewing within the electronic melange of flight deck paraphernalia and not overtly noticeable even to the crew. For the most part we’ve been erring on the safe side. In America, the restrictions were originally laid out by the FCC (in 1991) not the FAA. From planes, exacerbated by high altitude and the near Mach speed of a jetliner, cell calls jump from antenna tower to antenna tower on the ground, resulting in all sorts of problems for the communications companies.

Currently under trial is an onboard system able to collect and send cellular signals by way of a laptop-sized server and series of small base stations, called “picocells,” spaced about the passenger cabin. A picocell — weighing about 20 pounds — automatically commands your phone to operate at greatly reduced power, eliminating the tower-to-tower confusion caused by its normal-strength RF emissions. Calls are then routed, via satellite, to ground stations.

Although useful during long-haul overwater flights, satellite linkups are expensive and call capacity is limited. At least one company, AirCell, is proposing a service for the US domestic market that bypasses the satellite link. By taking advantage of the FCC’s recent auctioning of a spectrum of air-to-ground frequencies, AirCell’s version will transmit calls directly from the in-cabin picocells to special towers using a dedicated frequency band. The company claims the cost of an inflight call will approach that of a normal ground-based call.

With the linkage issues solvable, the FCC is prepared and willing to liberalize its policies. How the safety concerns will be addressed, however, is not fully determined. One almost certain caveat will be an FAA prohibition on calls below 10,000 feet or during any safety-sensitive mode of flight.

The newly allotted frequency spectrum will also allow full and inexpensive Web-surfing capability from 35,000 feet. Existing data connections rely on satellites and are accordingly pricey. Now, broadband access could be priced at $10 or less per flight, though on long-hauls, where perhaps it’s most desirable, connection will continue to require a satellite link.

Lufthansa inaugurated satellite Wi-Fi on its widebody fleet last spring, charging a flat $30 per flight over six hours duration, $20 for flights between three and six hours, and $15 for those under three. Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, Scandinavian and All Nippon were fast on Lufthansa’s heels. Here, as with prior inflight innovations, it’s the foreign carriers leading the way.

This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.