Why Must Electronic Devices Be Turned Off on an Airplane?
Mobile phones, tablets, portable video game consoles, and other electronic devices are pervasive time-wasters in the twenty-first century. We can use them to play games, connect with family and friends, and explore the Internet. One would imagine they’d be particularly useful for passing the time on a multi-hour aeroplane ride since moving from one’s seat is discouraged. Those of us who have travelled in the last decade, on the other hand, are familiar with the preflight admonition to turn off any electronic devices or keep them throughout the trip, you will be in “aeroplane mode” (or “flying mode”). We are advised to cut off cellular service since device signals interfere with the aircraft’s navigational systems. Is this, however, true? Can your cell phone or other electronic devices endanger the flight?
The quick answer is probably not, but you should understand how your electronic gadget impacts the plane’s instruments and other passengers during the trip.
The first step is to understand how your electronic equipment operates and interacts with the plane. To connect to a wireless network or cellular telephone tower, electronic devices transform into low-power radio wave transmitters (often with a maximum power of 0.25 W in the case of mobile phones) that link to cellular towers and other receivers that carry the signal outward—but they also transform into receivers to receive inbound signals. If the tower or another receiver is close by, the device does not need as much power to search for and maintain the signal between the tower and the device.
When an electronic gadget is in active or cellular mode, it emits a radio signal; when in aeroplane mode, it does not. Most airlines warn that radio signals from an electronic device may interfere with one or more of an aircraft’s critical systems, such as sensors that help the aircraft’s instruments communicate with one another, navigation equipment, collision-avoidance technology, and other types of avionics.
In actuality, however, modern aircraft’s delicate electronic equipment is effectively protected from radio waves. Although electromagnetic interference from mobile phone transmissions was implicated in two crashes in Switzerland in 2000 and New Zealand in 2003, it is far more likely that device transmissions during the flight will simply annoy the flight crew. This is because the signals register on their equipment (requiring pilots, navigators, and radio operators to work harder to read their instruments correctly), and signals are frequently picked up through their headphones as a muted beeping sound—the same type of sound that emanates across home stereo speakers when unread text messages or e-mails are put next to mobile phones to them. Thus, “pilot annoyance” is most likely the reason airlines require passengers to turn off their gadgets during flights. Although the European Aviation Safety Agency declared in 2014 that electronic gadgets posed no safety threats, other countries’ agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States and the Civil Aviation Administration of China, have maintained restrictions. Electronic devices must be turned off in China for the length of the flight; otherwise, the user risks spending time in jail and/or paying thousands of dollars in fines.
Still, flying tourists from all countries would prefer the opportunity to make phone calls from the air using their own smartphones rather than the pricey airphone service provided by some aircraft. One option to accomplish this while minimising disruption to the flight crew is to install onboard cellular towers known as “picocells” on each aircraft. Picocells give electronic-device users close cellular service while limiting transmission signals. Many European airlines employ equipment from cellular service providers, such as AeroMobile, to route in-flight calls and deliver wireless communications to passengers. American airlines have been slower to adopt picocell technology, and they are awaiting a judgement from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is concerned that loosening phone call regulations could turn comparatively tranquil passenger flights into loud, annoying experiences.