Opinion: Hey, Can I Now Use My Phone On Planes?

I've travelled 29,000km on aeroplanes this year. That's 27 flights. And on each of those 27 takeoffs and 27 landings, a hungover flight attendant has asked me and my fellow travellers to turn off our phones. I didn't, not once. And you know what? I didn't die. All 27 planes found the runway, none of their engines sputtered out.

We didn't survive because we were lucky. We made it across those 29,000km unscathed because fear of mobile phones crashing aeroplanes in 2012 is like being afraid of warlocks or a Wham! reunion. It's not a real thing. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the original phones-on-planes fearmonger, even said so today point blank. So why is the FAA is the only organisation in the entire goddamn civilised world that won't admit it?

Do you know why the anti-mobile phone crusade even exists on planes? Seriously though, you'll love it. Way back in 1991, the FCC and US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) both banned mobile phones from being turned on in-flight because back then mobile phones were pineapple-sized wind-up machines that nobody understood and that were therefore terrifying by default. And when they finally got around to actually studying mobile phones on planes, in 1992, guess what? They found nothing. Nada. It was fine because of course it was it's just a phone.

A normal human person, upon finding out that something he feared was in fact harmless, would act on that knowledge! This is why we use fire for candles cooking instead of damning it as an agent of a vengeful god. Instead, the FAA and FCC both decided that we should leave our phones and laptops anyway just in case, which is like not getting a haircut just in case scissors are really just sentient, brain-starved steel fingernails.

I'll spare you the rest of the history lesson since, surprise, it's just the same bullshit on repeat for 20 years. But it's probably worth pointing out, just for fun, that the only recorded instance of a phone actually being harmful to a flight is a 2009 incident when a first officer forgot to put his phone on vibrate and got distracted by the ringtone (Ke$ha, probs?). Seriously! That's it. If you're going to ban something just ban that guy.

This is so dumb and so bad obviously, but worse than dumb and bad it's embarrassing. Ever since Obamacare passed, using phones in-flight is literally the last thing the rest of the civilized world can hold over our heads. As of last year, there were 139 countries that don't restrict in-flight phone use at all. And I'm pretty sure if Luxembourg had a higher crash rate than the rest of the world, we'd have heard about it by now.

Look, the game is up. The FCC was the FAA's last friend in this fight, and even they've seen the light. But even still, all the FAA can do is tease a new committee and a fresh look and oh my god they do this every six years and nothing ever changes.

This time, it has to change. No committees, no fresh looks. Just admit that the many, many looks you've already taken don't prove a single thing and let us use our phones like the entire rest of the world does. It's one thing to fear what we don't understand. But straight-up refusing to understand it is an embarrassment.


Comments

    Hear hear !

      The ban on cell phones on aircraft is designed to force passengers to use the expensive in-flight phones.
      Mythbusters..BUSTED
      It was found that cell phone signals, specifically those in the 800-900 MHz range, did intefere with unshielded cockpit instrumentation. Because older aircraft with unshielded wiring can be affected, and because of the possible problems that may arise by having many airborne cell phones "seeing" multiple cell phone towers, the FCC (via enforcement through the FAA) still deems it best to err on the safe side and prohibit the use of cell phones while airborne.

        Yeah - Mythbusters is great, it's entertaining, it gets kids and kids-at-heart interested in science and engineering, they blow stuff up and have a great time doing it.

        What Mythbusters isn't, is real, controlled scientific investigation, the FCC have access to much more sensitive instrumentation, deployed in properly shielded test locations, conducted by real scientists in situations that are properly controlled.

          True, MythBusters is not rigorous. But *any* occurrence of in-flight instrument failure due to 'phone emissions is valid data, and scary too.
          The bottom line is that the FAA have to be *sure* that no 'phone is going to crash *any* aircraft before they can authorise use.
          So.... someone has to test all these 'phones against all these aircraft types.
          Not going to happen soon, that.
          I've been transmitting RF and watching the results since 1959, and some of the side effects can get spooky. Easier to explain after the event than to predict.
          Up around 900MHz it gets pretty weird. And as these new flying apartment blocks evolve they acquire more and more mission-critical electronics.
          Yup, the expensive in-flight 'phone makes the airline cattle herders richer and fatter and happier.
          But I personally would prefer to not have any unwanted RF in the fly-by-wire, thanks.

      I'd like to see you trying to defend the stance in a court of law after you get charged with breaking a federal aviation regulation. If you disagree with a law don't encourage people to break it but instead encourage people to advocate for the law's change/removal.

    Fair enough one phone or several phones might not affect the plane's electronic but a couple of hundred passengers all using them at the same time might. It is the same at the fuel station when you fill your car that they have sign's telling you to turn of your mobile phone. Its not that it can start fire's etc., its so as it will not as a transmitter affect their electronics and possible allow you to get free fuel.

      yeah .... nah
      the main problem with filling at a servo is that there is large amount of combustible fumes coming out of the tank as you fill, and there is a very very small chance that the battery (if its the removable type) could spark between the contacts igniting the fumes.
      Also, don't you think that they would have also tested all scenarios when testing the effects of phones on planes. Im pretty sure they wouldn't have got the local grade 9 class to do the official testing.

        I highly doubt that today's smartphones (or indeed, any phone from the last 2 generations) can cause that kind of spark by removing a battery. And if it does, one must question why you're removing a battery in a servo in the first place.

          not from removing the battery, just from the possibility of it moving around itself enough to make a spark

        No. There is no possible way to do rigorous testing of every single mobile devise that has ever been released, no way to keep current with the rate that new devices come out, and no way to test all the possible different combinations of devices people might have. Planes are hardened against electromagnetic interference from the outside, with the hull and skeleton acting like a Faraday cage. The wiring is shielded, but not against the amount of concentrated frequency activity that everyone turning their phones on would create. The argument that "Well, I had my phone on and we didn't crash" is moronic beyond fucking words. One won't do anything. Having 300 different devices blasting away from inside the plane right next to all that equipment is a terrible thought. Even if it affects one part of one system - that system might be the ILS, where a deviation of a single degree in the wrong wind conditions could slam the plane into the ground. Turn your fucking phone off for a couple of hours, jesus christ. You aren't that important.

        Last edited 31/12/12 9:03 pm

      Planet earth glows like a sun across all the frequencies, due to human activities. Airliners are constantly immersed in this electromagnetic radio ocean. Even if everyone on an A380 (around 450 passengers) all began to use their phones at the same time the only problem would be the fights that would erupt on board because of the verbal abuse. Modern airliner's systems are hardened against all kinds of radio waves and the tiny amounts emitted by phones and other electronic equipment have exactly no affect on them

      No. For fuel stations the problem is static charge build-up. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuZxFL9cGkI

      It's the same reason they removed the ability to allow you to lock the nozzle open - i.e. you have to squeeze the handle to let the petrol flow. The car is insulated from the ground, and the petrol flowing in the hose builds up a static charge. You yourself also build up a static charge, especially depending on the material your clothes are made of - I'm sure you've zapped yourself at some point while getting out of the car.

      A live phone in your hand helps build up the static charge on you, both because of the field it generates and because you're likely to be walking around while talking. If you then reach for the nozzle after the tank is full, with both you and the car having built up a charge difference, you'll get a static spark, and the fumes pouring out around the nozzle, where your hand (and spark) are, might get ignited. A phone user, whether the nozzle operator or not, might accidentally cause such a spark.

      By holding on to the nozzle, the charge gets grounded through you and eliminates this problem. If you're using the phone, you're probably also not holding on to the nozzle. I've seen people jam the trigger open, with a cigarette lighter, of all things!

      Mobile phones are probably also not what is called "intrinsically safe" (a mining industry safety term) and the battery contacts MIGHT experience micro-arcs while the phone is being used by the nozzle operator near the fumes. The combination of these is not something you want to risk.

      As for the main topic - phones on planes - even if it's safe, I'd just prefer not to have to hear everyone's conversations... it's bad enough on the bus or train.

        A great explanation.

        I've personally never really been bothered by the rule. It isn't hard to abstain from mobile use for no more than 5 minutes while filling the car up and walking around a station.

      Mythbusters found that it was predominately static build up on clothing that caused sparks at the pump in those cases. Usually from when people start filling their tank, then sit down in their car whilst waiting, then get back up and touch the nozzle again.

    Good job. Probably one of the better articles I've read on this site.

    also worth noting that I feel its a conspiracy started by book and magazine manufacturers, forcing you to buy their antiquated products before every flight so you have something to do for the 30-45 minutes during takeoff and landing

    I call bullshit on this argument. You know how sometimes when you're listening to the radio in your car and a text comes into your phone, you get a funny sounds coming through the speakers of your stereo? Well, with 100 phones on a plane the interuptions to the pilot's radio is effected in the same way, only 100 times worse. Sure, that might not directly cause the plane to drop out of the sky, but your pilot could be distracted by the noise, or worse, miss an important message.
    Is it really that big a deal to use flight mode on your phone for an hour? It's not as though you have a mobile tower nearby to get any reception anyway.

      Pretty sure this can be easily stopped with proper shielding of the equipment, which of course an aircraft would already have.

        They have shielding that is designed for a mobile-free environment. Do you want every single plane ever made to have their wiring looms ripped out and replaced by new ones with extra shielding, just so you can upload a picture of your lunch in the air?

      You get that interderence because your speaker cables are weakly insulated. eg. nmot electromagnetically shielded properly. A plane which flys at 30,000 feet and is bombarded by radiation due to it being above 80% of the atmosphere is already heavily shielded. Your argument is invalid.

    If I reach the point where having to switch off my devices for two 10-15 minute periods once a fortnight (i.e., 27 times a year) sets me off on a rant like this, please shoot me.

      no shit.
      this dude is like grampa simpson. going on about pointless shit. no-one turns off their devices. but, at the same time, no-one usually gets so worked up about it that they feel the need to write a public rant about it.

    You have pretty damn good reception if you can make calls 15,000 feet in the air and travelling at 700+ km/h :P

      im able to send and receive sms's on Sydney to Melbourne flights, and have rejected calls before...

    As long as people cant make calls and they have their phones on silent. Fuck being on a long flight and having to hear multiple phone conversations going on at once.

      Earphones?

        +1

        I really loath those people who have a major problem with other people's noise, yet it never occurs to them that they can simply solve this problem by shutting their own ears off with noise isolating earphones. It's 2013, get with the times rather than complain about other people when it is you that needs fixing.

          I'd be more inclined to say its up to the people making the noise to be quiet - Yeah have a conversation, but keep your voice down, and if you want to make phone calls on crowded public transport, use the earphones that every smartphone comes with that includes a microphone so you don't have to speak loudly to be heard.

          I shouldn't have to go and drop extra cash on noise cancelling headphones just because I'm riding a bus.

            But if you have a major problem with this type of noise polution, don't you owe it to yourself to solve the problem?

            Also who said anything about "noise cancelling"? Noise Isolating earphones are $2, or free sometimes, I have two pairs that I got for free as some street promotion. Shoot me an email I'll post them to you. Will solve all your issues so you no longer have to waste time venting your frustrations on the subject on threads such as this.

            Last edited 10/12/12 1:02 pm

              No, civility is about not causing problems for others.

              @lillee I'd love to take up your offer of a free pair of Noise Isolating earphones!
              As Colonel hasn't replied, can I please have them instead?
              You can email me at my username at googles email service dot com.

              Any canal style earphones does a lot to reduce noise.

        The onus to deal with the problem isn't the one suffering - it's on the one being an insufferable ass.

    Is he talking about he didn't put it in flight mode or he just left it on during takeoff and landing? Can you even get reception that high...?

    If mobile phones REALLY affected the aircrafts "sensitive" avionics, do you really think they would allow anyone to take a mobile phone into the cabin? They would confiscate them all at the door, or load them in the hold. I have never turned off my equipment, including a GPS logger

      +1

      My point exactly. If it was a real problem they would make you turn it off and not have it in your hand luggage.

      Do you think it's maybe because - like absolute idiots - they might expect people to obey a simple rule put in place by people who actually know what the fuck they're talking about?

    The reason why mobiles got banned, is just as stupid as the one you listed.

    Remember when mobiles used to make that cool stuttering buzzing sound on our speakers? Or when they used to make our old CRT monitors go funny?

    They saw that and assumed mobiles could take down a plane or blow up petrol stations.

    It's stupidity of the highest order.

      Do you know why you don't hear that noise any more? Because your cables all have that big, fat, ugly cylinder at one end or the other to cut it out. New aircraft might be similarly shielded but older aircraft will still be vulnerable to that sound (see my post below).

    I politely turn my devices to airplane mode and turn off the transmitters but I do not turn off the phone and then use them in flight for entertainment as what's allowed in AU but to turn it off completely on the chance that it might interfere with no transmitter active is a joke.

    Rachel I haven't heard that noise for a long time. It only really happens if you're phone is sitting next to the stereo or the lines or the speakers.

    I'm all for phones being switched off or put into aeroplane mode. The last thing we need on cramped budget airlines are idiots having loud phone conversations, or hearing annoying beeps etc.

    To be honest though, for anyone who's worked in broadcasting or with lapel mics, they do get a lot of noise from mobile phones, smart phones in particular and most especially blackberries for some reason. This is also not just with radio mics so the mics themselves are picking up the noise, not just the radio receivers.
    It has to make you wonder about the way we spam the airwaves these days just as ordinary people.

    I don't think it matters either. they also have "air phones" in some planes FFS. I put mine into airplane mode to save battery and can watch stuff for longer. Ohh I have a Note 2 with 35 hour+ standby time.

    One of my neighbours is a commercial pilot and he always knows when someone has left their phone on because it interferes with his headset, just as phones interfere with speakers in your car/home. One or two dickheads like Brian don't make much difference but imagine if there were 300 phones interfering with communications between the flightdeck and the control tower during take-off and landing? The chances of missing a vitally important command would be quite high.

    And the reason they want you to turn off your devices completely during critical parts of the journey is so that you are paying attention, just in case they need you to do something drastic at very short notice.

      Suggest they fix this problem by shielding his headset from interference.

      It's like asking everyone to stop talking and be quiet because the pilot can't hear the tower instructions when all he has to do is turn up the volume...

      If people are that stupid to ignore vital commands in an emergency they deserve to go down with the plane. Yeah I said it

      Last edited 10/12/12 11:03 am

        No, it isn't. If they don't want you to use your phone, just turn the fracking thing off. They don't need a reason, nor should you. If you want to complain about air travel, this is hardly the place to start. It wouldn't make my top 20 list of air travel annoyances. OTOH, dickheads who can't do as they're told would be near the top.

      How does he know its a phone causing the interference? I'm call this a false positive, because I doubt there are any flights without at least one person with their phone on (its one requires about .5% of people doing it).

        Don't be an ass, everyone has heard that very distinctive sound that mobile phone interference makes.

      That's odd because I have been told the opposite from several people in the aviation industry. One as a pilot, the other 2 as aircraft engineers, who work on both larger commercial planes and small propellor planes (sometimes quite old). They all concur that the issue is a pile of crap. They are as sure as an inverse femtobarn about this issue. Having read countless studies as well as having a few phones on (3, all doing something at the time) during a flight in a small light aircraft. They saw NO issues.

    So I take it you have an electrical engineering degree with a specialisation in electromagnetic fields and wave propagation? If you did, you would see your article is grossly irresponsible and could cause a possible indecent, if people were to follow your advise. If you don't want to see your self legally liable for gross negligence, I suggest this article be removed before you are liable offering such baseless information.

    I can tell you a cumulative affect does happen, and can affect many aircraft navigation and flight critical systems. If you finding living without your iPhone or tablet for 15 minutes inconvenient to you, then you always have the choice of taking a bus.

      No. But fortunately, the FCC has engineers to test this out, and they've basically admitted to being wrong.

        NO THEY DIDNT, you haven't read the paper on it. but keep going, already today one australian media outlet is in major trouble for doing a stupid stunt... rack this up to another stupid stunt!

        Your statements are NOT based upon a proper analysis of a scientific peer reviewed paper, thus your conclusions are incorrect.

        Show the peer reviewed article that states your conclusions, otherwise keep the article up at your peril .

      Bullshit.

      Brian isn't the only regular flyer who doesn't turn off his devices or put them in flight mode. I'm one, and I'm sure there are many others.

      Every single person on every single flight of every single day is probably carrying a phone. A percentage of them don't bother turning their transmitters off, and OMG, amazingly no planes fall out of the sky or lose their way....

      Nail clippers are considered too dangerous to be allowed onto a flight. If mobile phones could actually cause a serious problem airlines wouldn't just hope that people turn them off when told, they'd take action to *ensure* they weren't being used.

      Legally liabile for gross negligence? Really? And I suppose you have law degrees to support that he would be held liable in a court of law???

      Luckily the FCC has engineers. They have stated the effect of using a device in flight mode does not exist (atleast that's what I got from the paper) and further investigation is warranted for allowing a celluar signal during flight.

    Good point and I completely agree. My personal issue with phones on planes is more to do with people making voice calls and disturbing the peace. I'm all for texting on silent or internet use, but as a frequent flyer, sometimes its the only peace I get between meetings (irrespective of my headphone use!)

      My personal issue with phones on planes is more to do with people making voice calls and disturbing the peace.

      Ok... how many people have you ever seen successfully make a voice call during flight?

    You do get that stupid annoying mobile phone sound over the intercom at the pointy end. Happens all the time too!

    Anyone who thinks it is okay to operate electrical equipment that have RF capability during take and landings are idiotic knobs!!! The main reason for the ban is that the airlines cannot test every single gadget against their aircraft so the ban during those times onboard an aircraft is a precautionary measure, as they dont know if the gadgets will or will not interfere.

    Yes this was tested in a Mythbusters episode however they noted during the episode this exact point I am making now. Seriously what is wrong with you if you are unable to switch off a device that you are carrrying I think you should get some professional help. So what if your uncontactable for a while. The emails and messages will still get through to you when you switch back on again. Shessh!

      If it were that simple could a terrorist cell not just make a device that bombards a plane mid flight with RF noise and radio waves? Be very simple. Again the FCC has changed their stance on the issue. Experts in a field related to the topic

      FYI I too would not like to see a plane full of people talking on their phones. But the technical merits for disallowing electronic devices during flight is non existent.

    I always leave my phone on whilst flying too (not on "flight mode" just "normal" mode).

    Problem is that there's no reception, obviously.

    The reason they tell you to turn your phones off is that the majority of people would not pay attention to the safety check/run through; and to ensure that if there's an issue during take off / landing that passengers can hear clear instructions - though if you told people that they'd just ignore it... threaten them that they'll all die if they have a phone on helps in this case.

    It's there for mobile phones that have been dropped and screwed up the frequencies so it no longer operates on 850/900/2100 and interferes on other bandwidths.

    Electronics on aircraft are tested to be shielded even against very powerful radar pulses.
    To suggest they could be undone by a mobile phone is ludicrous.

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