Researchers Say, Just Trust Us On This One — Phones and Planes Don't Mix

from the here-comes-the-science! dept

There’s been plenty of debate about the real danger of using mobile phones during airplane flights, with various governmental agencies re-examining the current ban. Traditional thinking held that wireless devices and even many common pieces of consumer electronics could interfere with planes’ cockpit instruments, but the technical issues looked to be easily overcome (unlike the social issues). Now, though, a group of researchers say that phones and other devices can interfere with aircraft systems “even more so than previously believed”.. The researchers can’t point to any incident that’s definitively been caused by an electronic device, but, in a tribute to specificity, say they’re sure something will happen, sometime. The researchers add their studies show that on every commercial flight in the northeast US, an average of one to four cell phone calls are made. Combine this with what must be the huge number of devices accidentally left on by travelers, and it’s hard to see reality backing up their prediction. We should stress that it’s not just phones they’re saying are dangerous, but all sorts of electronic devices. But given the number of computers, MP3 players, video game machines and other devices in use on pretty much every flight — and the startling lack of problems they’ve caused — it’s doubtful this research will be taken too seriously.

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Researchers Say, Just Trust Us On This One — Phones and Planes Don't Mix”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
mark says:

No Subject Given

I believe them. I tested this on a flight once. After they warned the cabin occupants about this, being a young know it all I figured it was just to interfere with my enjoyment of the flight, and I fired up my CD player. Within 2 minutes an intercom call was made from Up Front and the cabin staff made a sweep for the offender. That was just for a CD player. Imagine what sort of ruckus an actual transmitter would do. (You haven’t forgotten a cellphone is just a type of two-way radio, have you?) On-board phones installed on aircraft are designed using frequencies and filters and much computer time to calculate and eliminate such conflicts with other on-board instruments. Every time they add a new miracle device to the instrument load (radars, transponders, data trancievers, 2-way radios (any idea how many there actually are, especially on international flights?), satellite navigation, collision avoidance gear, all the associated computing equipment, onboard sensors and controls), all the potential EMI/RFI problems are run through a computer, and then they don’t always catch everything til field trials are completed. For all the trouble they go through trying to make sure the flight is as safe as possible, to paraphrase a bumpersticker, we should all “shut up and ride”.

Mike Ringold says:

Re: Half-Truth

I’ve got my private pilot license, go flying every other weekend, and I’ve only noticed cell phones interfering.

In fact, on my private pilot checkride, my FAA designated examiner talked on a blackberry (not really one, but looked similar) for virtually the entire flight! Not that I’m sure how, being as loud as it was, but he sure managed. And I paid the loser $350 to talk on his cellphone. Anyway. That didn’t interfer with anything, but some models make the radios crackle a bit, I’m assuming the same models that get pegged with putting out the most radiation in tests looking for cancer.

Other then that, nothing. And when I say my cellphone makes the radio make little noises, thats when its literally 1 to 2 feet away. A cell phone fifty feet behind the plane where a passenger would be in a 777? I don’t know.

The FAR’s leave it at the pilots discretion as to if we think a device is interfering. I personally dont bother to tell anyone I take up to turn anything off. If something went horribly wrong, I’d appreciate having a potential communication device immediately available should radio’s fail.

I’ve had my phone go off while playing around in a 172SP w/ a G1000 “glass panel”, and saw no interference there either, and its the exact tech an airliner would use.

On one hand, a jet would have twice as much. On the other, there’s five times as much mass to the plane to weaken a passengers signal by the time it got to the cockpit.

I’m no engineer, but I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.

Jack says:

Re: No Subject Given

Oh geez. If there was the slightest chance in hell that my cell phone / iPod / portable CD/DVD player / Gameboy could actually BRING DOWN A FRIGGIN PLANE, do you honestly think the AIRLINES would allow us to bring such devices on THEIR airplanes?
This ban is all about the FCC and the FAA collaborating to support that Monopolistic In-the-Air Phone Company and their $9.00/minute air-to-ground phone calls. The idea that a device that can barely create noise on an AM radio from 2 feet away could actually interfere with Commercial Aircraft Communication Systems is Typical Government Bullshit.
What pisses me off is NOT that they want me to turn-off my phone and iPod, but that they lie to me about the reason why.
I hate it when my government lies to me, and I hate it even more when they coerce private organizations, (airlines), to lie on their behalf.

Nick says:

Re: Re: No Subject Given

Puh-leeze, yourself.
The risk here is not that RFI or EMI would cause an airplane to crash. Avionics computers and data lines are multiply redundant to prevent such an occurence. The risk is that your electronic device would interfere with electronic guidance equipment like the RDF (Radio Direction Finder) or GPS receivers. The RDF, a primary guidance tool, uses weak radio signals and a phased antenna array to determine the location of airports by direction finding their beacons. The risk is that the 500 mW to 1 watt that your cellphone puts out could desense the RDF receiver, preventing it from hearing the beacon. This could come from spurious emissions from a cheap RF amplifier, an IF leak, or a manufacturing flaw. Likewise, the processing chips and displays in portable audio devices and PDAs put out RFI and EMI in the 2-100 MHz range, with unfiltered harmonics extending well into the receive ranges of this type of equipment. I know from personal experience as an amateur licensee that CD-ROM drives put out significant RF noise at a frequency of 440.300 MHz, our repeater’s output freq. If a plane is on IFR and using the RDF, and your cellphone jams the homing beacon, or the guideslope beacons on final approach, then the pilot is flying blind!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: No Subject Given

Well, there is such thing as doing it the old fashioned way… actually requiring a pilot to know how to fly a jet manually with instrumentation rather than by computer guidance. I don’t know about you, but when I fly the private business jet for my company, I don’t need to have all that computer crap to land at an airport. Most of the airports I land at don’t have ILS or anything else.

In my extensive experience with having my boss sit in the cockpit with me on his Nextel phone, which happens to put out the most interference I have ever seen in a cell, never had any effect on my gear other than to make a ticking sound in my headset. And, yes, even during an ILS approach. So take your research and shove it. I know from real world experience that this is BS.

Nick says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Anonymous Pilot

So, inclement weather doesn’t exist?
Not to mention that RDF is pretty old technology.
Your experience does not constitute a comprehensive study.
It only takes one time, where a miscalibrated RDF receiver meets a poorly manufactured radio transmitter, during a landing in fog, to cause an accident. Is it really worth the risk?
Finally, “personal experience” ≠ “research” Electronic devices interfere with other electronic devices, that’s a fact. Even my calculator has to be FCC certified.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 No Subject Given

Your boss’s Nextel causes interference with your communications equipment and this is perfectly fine for you? Your the pilot, it’s your license on the line. Keep in mind human hearing stops at 20kHz, anything above that won’t be heard through your headset.
And everyone with half a brain knows the reason given by the FAA is BS but why risk it. At cruise altitude most phones don’t work anyway. Just get the call at the airport like everyone else. If it was that important you should’ve been there hours ago.

Rikko says:

Cell phones are DEADLY!

Geez! They cause planes to fall out of the sky, gas pumps to explode in a fiery holocaust, medical equipment to kill people, and get mobile viruses that transmit your personal information to the terrorists!

The sky isn’t falling when you’re getting closer to it because your cell phone caused an EXPLOSION that’s sending you flying into the air!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Cell phones are DEADLY!

Way to look like an anonymous dickhead.


This is “Are cellphones dangerous to the aircraft’s electronics?”

So, get off your damn “I don’t want to hear people talking on their cellphone.” That’s like saying “I WANT TO KICK A BANANA IN THE FACE.” At a Red Cross meeting.

Anonymous Coward says:

No Subject Given

The best answer that I have been given on the subject is that the significance of electionic interference is nearly nil for most electronic devices (cell phones being an exception), but… in the event of the nearest airport losing their communications capability — the plane must then communicate with the next closest airport which may be a substantial distance away. On that sort of LONG DISTANCE communication, the interference of a CD player or laptop computer honestly could mean the difference between life and death.

I don’t know the validity for certain, but my brain boggles at the destructive force of a CD player spinning or the electronics of any small device affecting anything under NORMAL conditions.

Can’t the FCC and the FAA (maybe the TSA) get together and find some way to update the affected plane equipment? The blame-game may be more fun and less expensive, but it’s hardly a solution.

yoyo says:

Of course they interfere...

I’m sure just about anyone with any type of digital mobile phone has been more than annoyed by the RF interference they put out. Hey, I’m about to get a call! How do I know? My computer speakers are crackling and hissing, or my TV, or my car stereo — or whatever the damn thing happens to be near when transmitting.

There are obvious signs they interfere with stuff — we just overlook it because of the convenience of having a cell phone. I caused my car to “reboot” at 70mph one day when I put the phone too near a section of the dashboard. Someone called, the stero started hissing, I hit the speakerphone button and vehicle’s computer system crashed. In the panic of losing the engine and seeing the dash light up like a xmas tree, I slammed the phone shut the car instantly recovered. I know now not to keep the phone on the dash, and am willing to overlook the interference.

However, I’m not willing to overlook having my flight fall out of the sky because some cheap taiwanese phone herfs the autopilot system. If you can’t survive 3 hours without a phone call, seek professional help.

Douglas D. says:

There is no danger.

The problem is the ground networks being able to handle users changing towers so quickly and other infrastructure issues. Here read tests flights where this was already overcome using sattelites to overcome the terrestial network problem:,39020348,39160924,00.htm

Dizzley says:

Re: There is no danger.

That’s a real reason for sure: the disruption to cellular networks.

The UK CAA (alledgedly) did a study on interference in the 70s, which found that the avionics actually interfered with consumer electronics.

I’d personally prefer to keep cell phones off commercial flights for the social reasons outlined in comments above.

Tyshaun says:

so how big is the risk?

I dunno, with the amount of potential ESD (Electro Static Discharge) from clouds at high altitude, they are actually saying that airline equipment is so sensitive a cell phone can bring them down? I would have to say that the statement “poses more risk than previously thought” needs to be carefully followed by, “so what was previously thought”. Remember, there’s a chance I’ll win the lottery tonight too, but I’m not counting on that either.

randomboy says:

No Subject Given

I think that cell phone makers should add the functionality of having just the transmitter/receiver part of a cell phone turned off during a flight. I would still like to use my 3.2 Megapixel camera embedded in my phone without risking to cause a crash. Anyway, I don’t think that the signal would be stron enough at flying altitude to allow an actual phone call to be made.

Ron says:

The Truth

As you may know, cell phones aren’t allowed in hospitals or on planes and it has NOTHING to do with interfering with vital equipment. It has EVERYTHING to do with making sure you don’t intercept dialogue between doctors and patients, doctors and nurses’ stations, as well as pilots and control towers. If there is a problem with a plane that the pilot is required to report, even if it is a routine problem that might freak out a passenger, they most certainly don’t want to cause a panic. As far as other audio equipment interfering, why don’t those big screen TV’s down a plane? Because they can charge you $5 for a set of headphones so you can watch their movie, instead of watching your own DVD player. It is more confidentiality than interference.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...