For years, airplane passengers have heard the same mantra over their plane’s loudspeakers: “We are closing the cabin doors. Please close your tray tables, return all seat backs to the full upright and locked position, and make sure all cell phones and portable electronic devices are turned off.” And although for the most part the passengers comply with those regulations, few of them seem to know exactly why the regulations were put in place and if they are still relevant today.
The restriction of cellular phones on airplanes was initially a safeguard against the phones’ electromagnetic signals affecting the plane’s instruments and its communication with the tower. Incidentally, the latter is why airlines require all portable electronic devices, not just phones, to be turned off during takeoff and landing.
The major worry about the electromagnetic signals emitted by cell phones is that they will interfere with the plane’s avionics. Avionics, a combination of the words “aviation” and “electronics”, are electrical systems within a plane that govern things such as navigation, monitoring, and communication with airport control towers. If a phone disrupted a plane’s avionics, a number of very dangerous things could happen, so until recently airlines have restricted cell phone use.
Airplanes have changed since the no-phone policy was made, however. Just four months ago, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stated that “airlines can safely expand passenger use of Portable Electronic Devices during all phases of fight.” The avionic systems in airplanes have evolved to a point where they are extremely unlikely to be disrupted by the use of cellular phones, even to make or receive phone calls. Following the FAA’s statement, Tom Wheeler, president of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said, “modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules.”
But although its technologically is feasible for airplane passengers to make phone calls, this may not be desirable. Because an airplane is an enclosed space, passengers may not want the person next to them, or even a few rows down from them, to be talking for a long period of time. And, if a large number of people talk on their phones at the same time, the noise might be very unpleasant for the rest of the passengers.
The obvious solution, then, would seem to be to allow all mobile phone use except for voice calls. Texting and internet use such as email would be permitted, but passengers would be forbidden from using their cell phones in ways that had the potential to irritate others. There’s an issue with this solution, however: what if passengers, once they know that talking on the phone won’t endanger themselves or others, decide to simply ignore the rule and make calls anyway? It would be the crew’s job to police that, but doing so would take them away from their other duties and could cause some difficult situations that the airline would most likely rather avoid.
The technology that used to be vulnerable to the electromagnetic signals used by cellular phones has been updated, but there are worries about phone calls being disruptive. Airlines are now forced to decide whether to limit phone use in the same way they have been doing, to allow passengers free reign, or to allow them to text and email but not place or receive calls. Should the regulations be changed? Time will surely tell.