Time To Challenge Airline Paranoia On Wireless

from the second-that dept

We’ve discussed this issue on Techdirt a few times in the past, but here’s Guy Kewney taking a stand on something I believe in as well: it’s time that the airlines (or regulatory officials) explain to us what exactly is the problem with using wireless devices on a plane. Right now, the best we can get is that there “could be” a problem – but no one seems to have answers to what those problems might be. At the same time, there has yet to be one recorded incident of problems with mobile phones or WiFi devices being used on airplanes. Kewney points out that on almost every flight he’s been on lately, at least one mobile phone has started ringing in flight (meaning someone left it on – whether on purpose or not). I was on a flight recently where someone in the seat behind me made three or four phone calls during the flight. I have a friend who routinely leaves his Blackberry device on while on airplanes, so he can check his email. The article says that some pilots even keep their phones on in the cockpit while they’re in the air. The other reason (not mentioned in the article) that is often mentioned for banning in-flight phone use is that it messes with carriers’ towers – but even that doesn’t seem to have much evidence behind it. The only reasonable argument I’ve heard for banning phones on planes is so that we’re not trapped next to someone yakking away for hours on a cross-country flight.

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Comments on “Time To Challenge Airline Paranoia On Wireless”

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dorpus says:

I do

Can’t say where, but I do recall reading about an incident where a pilot had trouble communicating with the tower because someone was on their cell phone. I’ve also read that the high-frequency emissions corresponding to the frequency of the chips can interfere with some electronic equipment. They may have built shielding since to insulate this, but not all planes may have it.

Also, passengers on their cell phones may not listen to safety instructions. If they drop the cell phone during takeoff or landing, the cell phone could slide down the aisle and pose a safety hazard. But I know, Mike will post his next article on this topic like he never heard me.

Anonymous Coward says:

a couple of data points...

In my experience (both as a pilot and as a passenger), the FAA regulations serve 1) to insure you have a safe flight and 2) to provide the cabin staff with some sense of enpowerment.

I have personally experienced both situations. I’ll review the last circumstance first: While I was a passenger on a JAL flight, I whipped out my GPS (with suction cup remote antenna) and hooked it up to my laptop and used Fugawi to determine our *exact* location on the inflight map. Shortly after, I was asked to stop using my laptop and GPS reciever as it was “causing problems with the cockpit instruments”. I’m positive that this request was a canard and that the cabin staff were just weirded out by all my gadgetry.

Second situation, as a student pilot pursuing an IFR rating in actual IFR conditions with an instructor pilot who’s GSM phone rang on final approach at or close to decision height. Nothing quite as annoying as having to break off your apparoach because you lost before breaking out into visual conditions.

Keep in mind a few things about the environment you’re in when you travel by airplane. First, between the communications equipment, navigation equipment, collision avoidance equipment (and I count both TCAS and radar altimiter in this category) and varous asundry frequencies and side-bands produced by all the electronics, you must face the fact signal reciever/emitter rich environment. And, yes, some of those emitter/recievers can be deceptively simple (ADF approach uses AM radio technology and can be disrupted by something as simple as an electric shaver). Also, you’re basically in a huge metal tube that’s sealed at one end (rear pressure hull) with all the eletroics at the only “open” end. Can you say “cantenna” or “shotgun yagi”? Good… I knew you could. Now add in the various transmitters that can be found on the persons/luggage of 150 people affluent enough to use air travel. Throw in a good measure of harmonics and natural phenominum and you get a really good RF gulash…. you know, it’s amazing that anything RF works in the cockpit at all.

As far as 2.4ghz goes… I’m skeptical; after all most aircraft have microwave ovens these days. Still, landings and take-offs are sacred points in time that I’m just happy to be a carbon based life form without any RF requirments.

dorpus says:

Re: a couple of data points...

Yup, resonance is an amazing thing. One time, when I was bounce-juggling 4 rubber balls in a synchronized pattern, the floor of the room (solid concrete with linoleum tile) suddenly sank an inch beneath my feet momentarily. I imagine an analogous phenomenon with electromagnetic waves could produce jolts of disruptive energy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: a couple of data points...

You hit on alot of good points with the RF rich environment. I have another.

Someone has to fund the testing required to prove that all these devices can operate in an environment where consumer electronics are operating. You have to develop test waveforms, document them, get someone to test them to ensure they are valid, “real world” tests, distribute them to equipment manufacturer’s and then enforce compliance.

Aircraft equipment design and specifications move very slowly. With all the documentation and safety checks that go on, equipment makers simply can’t respond to the rate of consumer electronics development. It is much easier (and safer) to simply ban electronics on flight unless they have been tested or designed specifically not to interfere with existing aircraft equipment. Unfortunately for the consumer, this means they have to use the phones that are on the plane.

Just my two cents…

Faisal N. Jawdat (user link) says:

Re: No Subject Given

IIRC you have more, not less, lateral range from high altitude than from on the ground because you have less physical interference between you and the tower. I’ve heard claims that one of the objections to cell phone use on planes is that the phones use up more of the cell network resources because of the coverage area they touch.

Alex Borbiro (user link) says:

Re: Re: Phones and planes

Hi everyone, I’m no expert but I thought phone network coverage in a moving aeroplane was bad (or impossible) due to a) the speed of the plane,) and b) antennae which radiate upwards only
Some experiments seemed to confirm this:

THEN, I found this:
However, this does not convince me that the phones work at altitude (especially on a google page).
I would love to hear from anyone with extra knowledge/information 🙂
Alex, Brisbane. Australia.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Terrestrial Networks and Annoying Folk

The key reason that in-flight cellular use is banned is that it disrupts the cellular network.

The network was designed as terrestrial, with 2-D cells laid across the surface of the earth. As the network is laid out on the ground in cells, the frequencies are re-used by towers and customers in non-adjacent cells. That means that you can be in Hoboken using your cellphone on channel x, while another cellular user is in Harlem also talking on channel x. Even on the same frequency, because of the distance, your phone on the ground in Hoboken does not interfere with the phone in Harlem. Now imagine you are in a plane 15,000 ft over Manhattan. Your signal is equally strong in Harlem and Hoboken. This destroys the geographic frequency re-use of the cellular network, and as you know, frequency spectrum is a rare resource in this industry. Simply put, airplane-based cellular use does not fit the design of our current cellular networks.

The 9/11 calls are perfect examples. Yes, some calls worked some of the time, but in an unreliable, low quality way. We’ve all heard the 911 tapes: failed handoffs and dropped calls were the order of the day.

Lastly, there is a possibility that the carriers have a hard time managing, and thus billing for these calls. That’s a big no-no to for-profit companies.

If you research, you will find that because it is bad for the communications industry, the FCC is the agency that disallows use of cell phones on planes, NOT the FAA (although your cabin crew usually states the opposite). There is no FAA regulation against such phone use, but it is airline policy.

I don’t believe for a second that Blackberrys, cell phones, or even the more powerful signals of WiFi can disrupt a plane in flight, but they can disrupt a cellular network. If I believed that a cellular was capable of taking down a plane, I would take the bus, because there are always a few phones that were mistakenly left on.

That said, I think the FCC should get a law against people who think they need to yell into their cell phone before we even consider allowing use on planes. Ay caramba, the darned cabin crew and pilot’s announcements are loud and annoying enough, I don’t want to have to listen to someone’s half-conversation too!


Thomas Cowing says:

Request For Information

Customer Support:

I recently saw your website, and I have some questions. I represent a group of investors that is trying to bring to market a product that utilizes RF technology to the average airline consumer, specifically the airline passenger market. We believe that we have a sound marketing plan and a product with a broad-based acceptance.

We are looking for a manufacturer of the electronic components. However, we also have some questions and concerns regarding the RF portion of the product that is “acceptable” due to the target market security aspects of the electronics.

The concept would require that the transmitter be licated on the luggage itself and be activated iat the baggage claim carrousel area for passenger pick up. Low voltage, any acceptable frequency (which we do not know which frequency is accepted). Can you help on the known accepted frequencies?

Would you be so kind to call me (email) at the number below to possibly answer some question that we have?


Tom Cowing

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