Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

CELL PHONES IN FLIGHT....Via Tyler Cowen, the funniest line of the day comes from Mike Elgan of Computerworld, in an article explaining that the feds ought to get off their butts and definitively figure out whether or not cell phones and other electronic devices are harmful to airplane avionics:

If gadgets can't crash planes, then the ban is costing billions of hours per year of lost productivity by business people who want to work in flight.

Billions of hours! Of lost productivity! By business people torn from their cell phones for hours at a time! Give. Me. A. Break.

POSTSCRIPT: I should add that Elgan's story is remarkably nonpersuasive. Despite the fact that I don't like the idea of idiots sitting next to me chattering on their cell phones for hours on end, I basically agree that the feds ought to figure out whether cell phones really are dangerous or not. And yet, after reading his story, he's convinced me that there really are serious problems involved; that it really would be expensive to fix; and that it would be almost impossible to roll out the fix cleanly. Are flight attendants supposed to be able to figure out on a case-by-case basis whether someone is using a safe cell phone or a dangerous one? Will cell phones be allowed on some airplanes but not others? Is it really worth it to spend billions of dollars to usher in this brave new world? I'm less convinced now than I was before I read Elgan's piece.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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Comments

Buy stock in noise-canceling headphone companies.

Posted by: none on April 9, 2007 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

Can you even get a signal at 30000 ft?

Posted by: Dennis on April 9, 2007 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Does it makes sense to allow babies on planes and not cell phones? I think a crying baby is far more disruptive and annoying than someone yakking on a cell phone. I'd even allow terrorists on a plane if they'd limit their carnage to crying babies.

Posted by: steve duncan on April 9, 2007 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

Mythbusters did it.
The answer: commercial-grade, shielded avionics cannot be disrupted by normal (or even abnormal) cellphone RF.
But... there could be exceptions, so we might as well forbid them entirely.

Oh, and cell phones can't ignite gas pumps either. That was, like, one of their first episodes.

Posted by: Grumpy on April 9, 2007 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

You got all of that from his article? It seemed pretty clear to me that there weren't any serious issues.

I once saw the passenger beside me (pre 9-11) answer the phone while the plane was in the process of landing. We didn't crash.

I also know private pilots who use their cell phones in the air all the time.

Posted by: DR on April 9, 2007 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

Gah. The Computerworld article references the "Mythbusters" episode.

Posted by: Grumpy on April 9, 2007 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

Personally, I would say that cell phone and especially blackberries have reduced productivity by a substantial margin by making it impossible to think about anything or work through it in detail.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on April 9, 2007 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

> Mythbusters did it.
> The answer: commercial-grade, shielded avionics
> cannot be disrupted by normal (or even abnormal)
> cellphone RF.

Aircraft engineers don't design airplanes based on "some of the time" or even "most of the time"; they design them based on "each and every time to the limit of human capability". I have seen electronics on the ground go crazy when cell phones sitting next to them answer calls, and I don't think Mythbusters is ready to accept the liability for the hundreds of thousands of commerical flights worldwide every day.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on April 9, 2007 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

Being on a long-flight surrounded by cell phone babblers sounds like a description of hell.

Posted by: Michael7843853 G-O in 08! on April 9, 2007 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe a good plane scare is what the current administration is hoping for.

Posted by: nutty little nut nut on April 9, 2007 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

I've occasionally been bad and had my phone on during the flight to read through email. I'm usually not able to get a signal - so I don't know how this would work anyway. Does it depend on the technology - CDMA vs GSM - or is it just a function of where you might be flying over?

Posted by: kis on April 9, 2007 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

What about the billions of hours of productivity those businessmen will lose when the guy in the next seat is pushed over the brink by the constant inane yakking and beats them to a pulp?

Posted by: DaveL on April 9, 2007 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

Forget technical feasibility. The way we're jammed together like sardines in an airborne tin can is only tolerable to the extent that we can manage to ignore one another while wedged in next to each other.

Are in-flight cell phone conversations going to make this any easier? Just the opposite, obviously.

Posted by: RT on April 9, 2007 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

Given the level and duration of forced inactivity and proximity on aircraft, I would say that legalizing cellphone use in flight would almost instantly cause a very large increase in mayhem.

I know that, even on a commuter train, where the ride is much shorter, the frustration levels are much lower, and the proximity is much less, I have still on occasion had to restrain myself from grabbing a cellphone from some loud-voiced gabbling idiot and shoving it down his/her throat.

Babies sometimes can't be completely controlled. That is their nature. But cellphones can. They should remain forbidden.

Posted by: bleh on April 9, 2007 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

if cell phones are dangerous on airplanes why are they allowed at all? what do you suppose the odds are that every single cell phone on the plane is off? how does that work out with thousands of flights a day?

Posted by: supersaurus on April 9, 2007 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

Do you realize how many business travelers drink? I guess they drink because they can't talk on their phone and be productive.

Besides, people's tempers are short enough as it is when they are traveling. I wouldn't want to see their aggravation increase from cell phone discussions.

And keep in mind that the worst offenders probably won't be the business people but the teenagers and others yakking away loudly about the stupidest things imaginable.

I'm getting to the point where cell phone conversations should follow the Bible on praying . . . get thee to a closet.

Posted by: Tx Bubba on April 9, 2007 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

If they want to make enable email and Web browsing accessible on commercial airflights, I'd be all for that. But if I'm stuck on a plane next to a guy talking on his cellphone, I'm going to pull my cell out, and without actually making a call, I'm going to say random things as they come into my head.

I mean, why should that be a problem for anyone, if the cell phone guy isn't?

Posted by: RT on April 9, 2007 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans are chimpanzees, Democrats are bonobos.

Brian Hare of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues tested how well chimps and bonobos coped with challenging social situations. Bonobos, they found, were more likely to share a plate of food, using play or sex to defuse social tensions. In contrast, chimps' more limited social skills meant one individual was more likely to take all the food.

The researchers gave pairs of each species a task that required them to work together to retrieve a food reward that neither could reach alone. When the food was easily shared, both species quickly learned to do this. But when the food was in a single bowl - making it easy to monopolise - chimps were less willing to work together (Current Biology, vol 17, p 619).

Posted by: cld on April 9, 2007 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

Most of the commentary on this "issue" (about as important as the price of cable television) disregards important technical assumptions of the cellular system design, such as the fact that "normally" a given handset is only visible to a highly restricted number of cellular base station. From an aircraft a handset is visible to hundreds of base stations. Multiply that single handset by hundreds or thousands and one is then faced with the challenge of coordinating which station will take responsibility for the handset, and even worse how will hand-off be handled. Will the hand-off be to a station two hundred miles away, or to what would normally be the next station in line if the conversation were happening on the ground?

Truly, we're like the Eloi these days. Plenty of Morlocks to fill that role as well, and if no actual Morlocks are available we'll simply invent 'em, in the form of big conspiracies among airline exectutives, etc.

Posted by: Doug Bostrom on April 9, 2007 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

Let's remember that on 9/11, quite a few people used their cell phones on planes and while it didn't change the outcome, it's a good thing that they did.

A related issue is the common ban on cell phones in hospitals, for the same reasons. Now, it's one thing to be annoyed by someone chatting on their phone in the tight confinement of a plane. But people in hospitals very often want to make personal calls to update family members and if the phone isn't really affecting medical equipment, cell phone use shouldn't be banned.

Posted by: wally on April 9, 2007 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

The End Times: A Play in 3 short acts

Act I: Takeoff

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard World Airways Flight 1 from Los Angeles to Tokyo. I'm -- "

"Dude! I'm on the plane, dude! No way! No, I'm totally on the plane dude!..."

"Please direct your attention to the flight attendant for the safety --"

"So Margie, I sez to Janie, I sez: Janie I sez. Janie, you can't let him do that to you. And Margie, I sez to Janie, I sez..."

Act II: Six hours later

"Dude! I'm totally on the plane! No way! I'm on the plane dude! To Tokyo!"

"So Janie, I sez to Margie, I sez: Margie I sez. Margie, you can't let him do that to you. And Janie, I sez to Margie, I sez..."

Meanwhile, in Business Class, "billions in productivity" are being frittered away by passengers sound asleep in their convertible seats, with their airline-supplied Bose headphones, in their airline-supplied slippers.

Act III: Landing

"Ladies and gentlemen. If you will please remain in your seats while the Air Marshalls escort the passenger accused of murder from the rear of the plane..."

Posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on April 9, 2007 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

Another issue is that today's cell phone networks aren't designed for callers in the air moving at hundreds of miles per hour. The network operators are worried this might put excessive strain on the system.

Also, elevators are spotty enough for phone reception. Being in a metal tube 30,000 feet up surely won't be helpful either.

Finally, they may not interfere with instruments, but they certainly can interfere with communications. Many GSM phones can cause a "bzt-a-bzt-a-bzt" noise in nearby speakers or headphones as many users have no doubt noticed right before a call comes in. This would probably annoy pilots while they're trying to make out what the already muffled-sounding air traffic controllers are saying.

Posted by: Orange Crush on April 9, 2007 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

Yep. Business people need to be able to talk about confidential business deals with other confidential information while in proximity to people they don't know, but who can use that information for any number of purposes. Business people need to learn that an airplane seat is not necessariliy the best place to be handling confidential information.

Posted by: garth on April 9, 2007 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Are we a nation of sheep? Why should anyone be courteous to a bozo sitting next to you yakking on their cellphone during a flight for hours on end. I believe in proactive response: 1) Take out a pad and begin to jot down everything that the bozo is spouting on the phone. Let them know that you're recording their conversation for whatever nuggets they mention - including personal information which they can use against them by contacting the firm for which they work and 2) Begin to conduct a conversation with the bozo about their discussion - interject commentary, observations, criticism. When they complain, tell them to shut up, you have as much right to talk as they do.

Let them know that two people can play at the same game. They're trying to show their power and status by using the damned cell phone. Just take it and shove it on them. If they can't hear, they can't use it. Go for the countermeasures.

Posted by: PrahaPartizan on April 9, 2007 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

If cell phones are that disruptive to a flight, why don't terrorists just board a flight and secretly turn their cell phones on?

If a plane can be struck multiple times by lightning while in flight and still not crash, why can a cell phone crash it?

If a cell phone's puny milliwatt output is so disruptive to airplane electronics then shouldn't the radar at airports, the megawatt radio and TV antennas everywhere be even more disruptive?

And yet planes continue to fly...

Posted by: Dr. Morpheus on April 9, 2007 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Hmmm, if one can get more done in an hour, like a ditchdigger digging more ditches per hour or here a sales guy taking an order via cell phone on a plane, then one is more productive. More done in less time is higher production.

I don'y see why this Computer nerd's stance puzzles you.

Posted by: RogerDodger on April 9, 2007 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

Had only Boeing paid Maxwell Smart for the rights to the Cone of Silence.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on April 9, 2007 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

An enforced quiet for 20 minutes at either end of a flight can never be a bad thing. Period.

Posted by: Kenji on April 9, 2007 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

I don't really like kids that much.
I had 3 well mannered kids that could behave in a plane or out to eat.

BUT - being irritated at a poor baby that does not understand what is happening to them, and the Mother that (All cases I have seen) is frantically trying to comfort the baby.

Shame on you for being irritated at life itself.

Posted by: Lee on April 9, 2007 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

This article has been slashdotted, and thoroughly debunked as the piece of garbage that it is.

My fav part of the article is when the author derides bureaucrats who are making decisions in order to save lives as being "politically ambitious".

Posted by: Disputo on April 9, 2007 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

Personally, I would say that cell phone and especially blackberries have reduced productivity by a substantial margin by making it impossible to think about anything or work through it in detail.

Cranky

Add PowerPoint to that and it's a troika! I think HP has recently created new rules and guidelines even to cut email use drastically..

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on April 9, 2007 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

I apologize, but I have not read the entire thread. (time issues) However, I have to weigh in on cell phones in hospitals.

First of all, the phones don't interfere with the equipment. (Sometimes the equipment will interfere with the phone.)

Second, we can talk about perhaps limiting the use of cell phones in hospitals if they ever give us a comm system that works consistently. (Don't fucking mention Rudy Guiliani to me. I blame him for a lot of firefighter deaths, and so do a lot of members of the FDNY)

I was once on a helicopter with a dying teenager that damn-near collided with another helicopter on approach because the comm systems were incompatible. So I get a wee bit excited when I get on this topic. (May as well issue a rant alert, I guess...)

I took part in a 72-hour mass casualty drill a month before I left my last hands on medical job. IT was the kind where we got the fake patients. These were terrorism victims.

It got really ugly really fast. In the hospital where I was operating, the communications system crumbled quick. We were supposed to coordinate with the area military bases, the police and fire departments, and the other area hospitals were aware and their input was modeled. It was a fucking nightmare and broke down and we only salvaged the exercise by using our personal cell phones.

Back later. I promise to read the thread before I comment again.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on April 9, 2007 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

A study was done that determined that on average, at least once per flight a passenger used their cell phone, often during the critical takeoff and landing phases.

http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/mar06/3069

Posted by: DR on April 9, 2007 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Blue Girl: Comms is always a problem. Cell phones can save the day in a situation like that you describe, where comms in one location are out.

But in a terrorist mass casualty event -- or, say, an EMP event generated by detonation of a nuclear device -- the repeaters are likely to be just as crashed as everything else is, if only by the zillions of people calling each other to tell each other to turn on Faux News.

Posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on April 9, 2007 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe it was all those cell phones in use that brought down Flight 93!

Posted by: Ray Waldren on April 9, 2007 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

But in a terrorist mass casualty event -- or, say, an EMP event generated by detonation of a nuclear device -- the repeaters are likely to be just as crashed as everything else is, if only by the zillions of people calling each other to tell each other to turn on Faux News.

That experiment has already been performed in NYC on 9/11 -- the cell system was totally overloaded. Emergency workers would be bet advised not to count on cell phones in a real emergency.

Posted by: Disputo on April 9, 2007 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Let them have laptops, WIFI, email, IM --- but please, make them STFU.

Posted by: Alan on April 9, 2007 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

This is cracked. If terrorists could bring down a whole plane just by switching on a few cellphones and placing calls to one another, we wouldn't be allowed to fly with them at all.


Posted by: ruidh on April 9, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

The whole "no cell phones" thing is all about the money.

Posted by: scarshapedstar on April 9, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

We've heard from Cranky, Grumpy, and Doc, but I'm reserving judgement on this issue until Dopey and Sneezy chime in.

Posted by: Qwerty on April 9, 2007 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

Believe me, allowing cell phone conversations on flights would only lower general productivity. Most of us can only get things done when our bosses are safely on a plane and can't pester us with calls and pages.

Posted by: Thomas Garvey on April 9, 2007 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

1. supersaurus=genius ->let's think about this: if there was any doubt that a cell phone could bring down an airliner, they wouldn't be allowed on board at all. I mean for goshsakes, they don't allow freaking TWEAZERS on the plane.

2. It is my understanding -from my airline pilot friends- that the idea that cells were used by 9/11 passengers is actually a myth that has been perpetuated by the media. All phones used were those seatback card-activated phones.

3. Nobody gets more annoyed by in-flight yakking than I do, so I have a simple solution: foam earplugs. They are an absolute revelation in the sky (and on the ground for that matter). And they cost about $2 for a dozen pairs.

Not allowing phones on board because people might talk alot seems a little bit ridiculous to me. We have unwritten social conventions and mores that regulate behavior in public places, and this will just be another arena where some standards will be adopted by the public.

Lee- not to put words in Steve Duncan's mouth, but the problem with children isn't ever the children themselves, it's the parents. Too often they're NOT trying frantically to calm their child down. They've arrived at the airport completely unprepared for an X hour flight, haven't brought food/water, change of clothign, or worst of all haven't bothered packing a single toy or diversion for their toddler. I've been on far too many flights where the parents assume that everyone else thinks their kids are just as cute as THEY think they are. And yes, it is a complete nuisance and a valid complaint, the same way it's a valid complaint when people don't wear deodorant and board a packed plane. There's a simple word for it: inconsiderate. And inconsideration comes in many forms.

Who knows, YOU might be one of those parents who think your 3 kids are well behaved, but in reality they annoy the shit out of everyone around them...

Posted by: ssdagger on April 9, 2007 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

A hearty "No Fucking Way" from me on phone calls on an airliner. You need to max out you productivity and close billion dollar deals? Charter a flight.

If someody sat on a plane using one of those goddamn Nextel phones in "walkie-talkie / beep between every interchange" mode, there would be "air rage" incidents in a matter of minutes.

Posted by: Mr Furious on April 9, 2007 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

No. Cell. Phones. On. Airplanes. Ever.

Fuck productivity, the rest of us need our sanity.

Posted by: arteclectic on April 9, 2007 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

It occurs to me that if we learn which kinds of cell-phone interactions are harmful to avionics, then that knowledge will be available to those who might want to interrupt airline operations. You wouldn't need to be a suicide bomber when you could be a suicide caller.

Right now, we don't know for sure what is harmful, so terrorists also don't know. I doubt that al Qaeda has a research lab, at least not a big one, so if our research labs DO find out how to interrupt airline communications -- or better yet, actual airplane operations -- that itself will become a danger. Once the research finds a way to attack avionics, then someone is going to have to tell the cell phone companies what to avoid. There's no way that knowledge could be kept secret for long; you have to tell thousands of techs what NOT to have their phone products do, and as soon as this knowledge is available, someone will try to use it. Better that we have them shooting in the dark in the off-chance they can screw up a landing or a compass heading or something than that they know what they're doing.

It's like making a hacker guess your password rather than publicizing it. It's not perfect security, this "security by obfuscation," but it is better than creating a how-to book and trying to keep the book out of the hands of the baddies.

Not to mention that cell-hone yakkers in public places are a bane on our existence, and anything that permits/encourages them is a bad thing.

Ed

Posted by: Ed Drone on April 9, 2007 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

If gadgets can't crash planes, then the ban is costing billions of hours per year of lost productivity by business people who want to work in flight.

Oh, boo fucking hoo. Speaking as one of those business people, I say hurrah for the ban. Just how productive am I going to be trying to read my work documents while having to listen to some idiot sitting next to me yammering about his pathetic life on his cell phone?

Posted by: Stefan on April 9, 2007 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

We at the FAA are truly sorry that cell phones offend you all so much. Since we're at it, we will ban everything that could possibly be offensive to anyone else on the plane, for instance, politically inflamitory T-shirts, fat people, smelly people, people who wear towels on their heads, professors who speak out against the government, and noisy infants. After all, your thrifty coach-class ticket clearly guarantees you to an irritation-free flight, and it's only fair to ban all of these, as you all are free from the unbearable irritation that is the cell-phone talker.

Just don't start snoring while you nap. We will be forced to kick your noisy ass off the plane in midair.

Posted by: BW on April 9, 2007 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK

1) Take out a pad and begin to jot down everything that the bozo is spouting on the phone. Let them know that you're recording their conversation for whatever nuggets they mention - including personal information which they can use against them by contacting the firm for which they work and 2) Begin to conduct a conversation with the bozo about their discussion - interject commentary, observations, criticism. When they complain, tell them to shut up, you have as much right to talk as they do.

I sometimes carry a tape recorder and hold it up to the person talking loudly on their cell in an enclosed space (i.e. next to me at a restaurant). If they get annoyed and ask what I'm doing, I tell them that I'm recording their call to put it up on the Web. Usually shuts them up.

Posted by: Stefan on April 9, 2007 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

If cell phones are allowed, then I should be able to bring a microphone and sing. I just might come up with the bridge I've been looking for while in flight, and the best way to remember the words and music is with repetition, repetition, repetition.

Posted by: Mo MacArbie on April 9, 2007 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

No. Cellphones. Anywhere. Ever.

Posted by: bigcat on April 9, 2007 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

Of course cell phones are dangerous on planes, & not because they would interfere with the electronics. They are dangerous to the user who incites the wrath of fellow passengers. They must be banned, not only on planes, but ANY form of public transportation.

Posted by: bob in fl on April 9, 2007 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

I get the feeling that the cell phone rule is just another example of "because we said so"-ism from the FAA.

Another classic example being the "no pilots over 60" rule. But at least that one has a half-baked ulterior motive (e.g. it insures higher salaries for young pilots).

This one... well what? It insures people who are desperate get charged ridiculous amounts to use the little in-seat phones? I don't think even the FAA is that evil...

Posted by: Jim D on April 9, 2007 at 5:12 PM | PERMALINK

Here's the problem...business is driven by people who are driven. Sure, this has always been the way of the world, but generally there was some time of the day reserved for non-business. 20 years ago you could ignore the phone call because "I wasn't home". Then the internet allowed business email to be accessible from a home computer. Then the cell phone allowed the boss to reach you anytime, anywhere. Then the Blackberry brought email and the phone together. I wear a Blackberry because my boss wants me to be able to check in on what's happening when I'm not at work. In other words, he wants his business to shadow "my personal life".
People who work 99% of their waking hours are driving those of us who don't want to work 99% of our waking hours. That's nuts, but I don't see an end to it.

Posted by: garyk on April 9, 2007 at 5:40 PM | PERMALINK

Well, if I have to listen to some dumb-ass corporate "road warrior" talking about the staff meeting on the quarterly meeting update meetings, then as a porn producer I'm going to mix and edit my stuff on my laptop next to you. Hey, I need to be productive too!

Posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on April 9, 2007 at 5:52 PM | PERMALINK

Y'know, I can almost see cell phones. But iPods/MP3 players? Really, all I want on a place is to be allowed to go off into private space where I can sleep. that is helped immeasurable by having my music on. And it's quiet. It doesn't bother anyone else.

And yes, I agree that modern society, and my desire as part of said society to simply be left alone, is sort of a disaster. I know that we are missing the Agoura and the interconnectedness of life. I agree that this is sad.

But I'm a thoroughly modern guy, and it's what I'm hoping to do. Given that I can't even find a mechanism through which my mp3 player/hard drive, which can't generate enough of a magnetic pulse to gauss my screen, could possibly negatively effect a plane's avionics, it's bunk.

The one explanation that made sense but was terrifying is that, though plane disasters are exceedingly rare, they happen most often during takeoff and landing, and anything that negatively effects my ability to listen to a flight crew in the event of an emergency makes us less safe. My response is that, if the plane goes or is going down, I'm actually going to want to hear what I'm being told to do, and will take off my headphones. Really. I do it on the Metro for announcements. I'll do it for a crash landing, too. But otherwise, it drives me up a wall.

Just my $.02.

Posted by: Ron on April 9, 2007 at 5:59 PM | PERMALINK

Jim D: I get the feeling that the cell phone rule is just another example of "because we said so"-ism from the FAA.

No, I think it's a "no good reason to say it's ok"-ism.

Having worked in avionics, I can tell you that the industry tends to be very careful and conservative. Having flown on airlines, I like that approach. Integrating all of the radio/radar etc. on a plane and ensuring that they don't interfere with each other in all scenarios is a major undertaking. Now you want to inject any combination of millions of units of hundreds of models of cell phones? You prove that it won't cause a problem.

Considering that cell phones are but a minor convenience to some passengers (and an annoyance to others), the FAA says "screw it, it ain't worth it".

Another classic example being the "no pilots over 60" rule.

Whole different animal. There's actually evidence that older pilots are often safer.

Posted by: alex on April 9, 2007 at 6:29 PM | PERMALINK

I hate unneccesary regulations. I hate fake "look like you're doing something" security. I hate aribitrary rules. When someone says "prove to me that X is safe" my response is "No. The burden of proof rests with the guys who favor the ban."

And yet, the prospect of spending four hours in an airplane with a bunch of jackasses shouting down their telephones is more than I can bear. Too hell with principle. My very sanity is at stake, as well as the physical safety of everyone around me.

There's this magic when a plane takes off for an evening flight. The cabin is dark. A few people turn on reading lights. A few don headphones to listen to their music or movies. A few quietly tap away at computers or gameboys. All in silence. The drone of the engines and the noise of the beverage cart is all that disturbs the peace. After the rush to the airport, the lines, the crowding, the waiting, the senseless harassment from the security drones, there's finally some peace. We made it, we're on our way, and there's nothing but my book for the next few hours.

You think you need to talk on your cell phone? Fuck you and all your works.

Posted by: Laertes on April 9, 2007 at 6:59 PM | PERMALINK

Adding idiots blabbering on cell phones to the already toxic mix of stinking colonge, snoring, crying brats, sneezing, coughing, bad air, bad food and the fatass in front of you reclining his/her seat into your 22-inch personal space while the doofus behind you slams his/her table up and down... would be the last straw.

And that's besides the tech issues. Bravo FAA, keep up the good work.

Posted by: john manyjars on April 9, 2007 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK

Cell phones interfere with data collection using Biopac equipment in our psychophysiology lab, so it is conceivable to me that they might interfere with plane electronics. That's why they are forbidden in hospitals.

Posted by: Perry on April 9, 2007 at 7:26 PM | PERMALINK
Does it makes sense to allow babies on planes and not cell phones?

Both cell phones and babies are allowed on airplanes, so the question is irrelevant.

Cell phones, of course, are required to be turned off in flight. I suppose if babies also could be turned off onboard and reactivated without damage at the end of the flight, it might make sense to treat them the same way. However, as this is not possible, I would have to say that there is a pretty good reason for not treating babies like cell phones.

Posted by: cmdicely on April 9, 2007 at 7:57 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely: I suppose if babies also could be turned off onboard and reactivated without damage at the end of the flight, it might make sense to treat them the same way.

If that were the case, there would be no need for a regulation requiring it. All non-masochistic parents would do it of their own accord. And, yes, I speak from experience.

As to the difference between babies and cell phone users, babies are very young and have not yet learned self-control. What excuse do cell phone users have?

Posted by: alex on April 9, 2007 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

Since babies have entered the discussion here, I believe there are many times issues with underdeveloped ear and sinus canals which cause babies to be especially prone to earaches and such while flying.

If they must fly, pack earplugs into them, put them in a pet carrier, and stow them in the overhead bin. /snark

Posted by: bigcat on April 9, 2007 at 8:47 PM | PERMALINK

Okay, listen up. I only want to explain this once.

The reason cell phones are banned on passenger aircraft has nothing to do with aviation safety. The real reason is that a cell phone handset at 35,000 ft gets a handoff record in every damned cell station for hundreds of miles around the airplane as it transits across the network topology at 500 mph.

Let's put on our thinking caps for a second and think about the network resources consumed by this, and who has to pay for them. Keep in mind that the cell network has no idea which handsets are flying around in airplanes and can have their handoff records booted from some (though not all) of the cells. All those records take up space unnecessarily and contribute to the call-drop rate as handsets on the ground pass from cell to cell and fail their handoff protocols for lack of resources.

The simple expedient solution is to ban the use of cell phones on passenger airplanes except for emergency purposes. Which is basically what we have now. The expensive remediation required in the network to support high altitude, high velocity handsets, is not something you are going to get for free. It will cost ratepayers money and require field upgrades of a lot of equipment. In the mean time, please stop bitching about the inanity of the argument that cell phones are banned for safety reasons. You're just helping to cover up the real reason for the ban.

Posted by: s9 on April 9, 2007 at 9:28 PM | PERMALINK

cellphones do not work in most aircraft. at speeds greater than approx 200 nautical miles per hour, handshaking cannot occur....therefore a connection cannot be established, cannot be maintained.

you can read on my blog my efforts to make cellphone connections on commercial airliners. last time i conducted this investigation was december 2006, iah to lax via continental. only time that handshaking could be completed and a connection made was on final approach, crossing the 405 at less than 150 ft and at less than 200nph.

this was true in 2001. it remains true. any claims of cellphone calls on 11/09/01 are bogus.

current cell towers are looking for signals horizontally. not vertically. to receive cellphone signals from aircraft would probably require cellphones to be plugged into some kind of antenna system, broadcasting downwards, and celltowers to be reconfigured with upwards-looking signal receivers.

alternatively, a satellite-linked system.

fortunately for the air traveler, the fcc recognised the distinct possibility of airborne insurgencies that would be provoked by hundreds of travelers shouting into their phones. the only solution that they could see would be for cellphone using airtravellers to be required to wear acoustical-isolating space helmets.

thank god for kevin martin. one of the few reptillians with a brain.

let us pray that this puts the issue of in-flight usage of cellphones to bed forever.

Posted by: albertchampion on April 9, 2007 at 9:38 PM | PERMALINK

bigcat: If they must fly, pack earplugs into them, put them in a pet carrier, and stow them in the overhead bin.

You're talking about cell phone users, right?

Since babies have entered the discussion here, I believe there are many times issues with underdeveloped ear and sinus canals which cause babies to be especially prone to earaches and such while flying.

If you must travel with a baby, ask the pediatrician about ear drops. I forget exactly which type, but it can help with the fact that babies can't pop their ears easily.

s9: The reason cell phones are banned on passenger aircraft has nothing to do with aviation safety.

The FAA is the outfit than bans them, and they could give a rat's ass about cell phone network resources. So how do you come to this conclusion?

Posted by: alex on April 9, 2007 at 9:43 PM | PERMALINK

Real men no longer fly. I was once told my cell phone would interfere with medical equipment. I told the nurse if their stuff was that rickety it sure would not work around fluorescent lights and CRT tubes. Don't lie to justify a rule. God will get you if you do.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis on April 9, 2007 at 9:49 PM | PERMALINK

Look, it is freaking obvious that the whole electronics in flight thing is pure bullshit.
If it were possible in any way top harm a plane by playing with a PSP while it lands, or by using a cell phone in flight or whatever, then WTF isn't TSA going ballistic about this? Surely the sensible thing for AQ to do is to forget shoe bombs and similar nonsense and just get on a plane with some electronic devices, tweaked at home to emit far more radiation than usual?

Posted by: Maynard Handley on April 9, 2007 at 9:59 PM | PERMALINK

I am not an engineer, but I know some that work in the airline industry.

The thing about using electronics on airplanes is that the odds that any given piece of electronics (or even the hundreds of items carried by passengers on a large flight) will interfere with an essential system on any given plane are extremely remote. However, given the potential consequences, airplane designers and the FAA naturally want to err on the cautious side. Also, given the number, complexity and subtley of the possible interactions, there is no way to model or test for all of them and it would be prohibitively expensive to try to do so for every combination of airliners and devices.

So the designers do the best they can, which is pretty good. Then the FAA takes the safe route and bans almost all electronic devices during the critical takeoff and landing periods when the crew wouldn't have time to react to or correct for any interference.

Unlike the other devices, the restriction on cell phones is not lifted once the planes reach cruising altitude. This is partly because as transmitters they have a much higher (but still low) chance of causing interference. But even more to the point, the FCC as well as the FAA has concerns for the reasons given by Doug Bostrom at 1:20 and Orange Crush at 1:25.

A single cell phone, rushing by with line of site to lots of different cell towers is not too big a strain to the system. Dozens to hundreds of cell phones per flight, times hundreds of flights in the air at any given time, could be a problem.

Finally, why should either the FAA or the FCC take chances given the conflicting opinions passengers have on the issue.

Posted by: tanj on April 9, 2007 at 10:40 PM | PERMALINK

Maynard Handley: Look, it is freaking obvious that the whole electronics in flight thing is pure bullshit.

Ah, a binary (pun intended) view of the universe. No, aQ operatives probably won't find using their cell phone in flight a reliable way to crash airplanes, even if they tweak them. But that's not the same as saying that a cell phone will not cause a problem under any circumstances.

Fortunately the folks responsible for safety critical systems take a more nuanced view than you do.

Posted by: alex on April 9, 2007 at 10:43 PM | PERMALINK

"The FAA is the outfit than bans them, and they could give a rat's ass about cell phone network resources."

The wireless telecom companies are curiously benefiting from a strange confluence of unscientific paranoia about unproven dangers of RF interference. Pressure groups arise out of nowhere and begin pressuring FAA, which isn't equipped to debunk the bogus claims, so they just cave. Don't they teach you people anything about how this works?

And yeah, I'm aware that the voice transport doesn't work at high velocity, but that doesn't stop the cell network from having to track all the handoff records for the handsets that still can't make a call.

Posted by: s9 on April 10, 2007 at 12:47 AM | PERMALINK

There are two possibilities for cell phones to interfere with airplane avionics. One is simply that a local transmitter, even though it is rather weak, appears strong to the planes various radio gear compared to a much stronger transmitter which is very far away. Compare the brightness of a small nightlight a few inches from your eye compared to the brightness of a streetlight a mile away.

The more difficult case is that not all consumer electronics works as it is supposed to. A cell phone (and other types of electronics) are allowed to broadcast radio waves either in a narrow band of frequencies or, more often, they are not supposed to emit radio waves at all. However, if by chance they are not in perfect working order then these devices will emit radio waves of many unusual frequencies at varied power levels. This is especially true for less expensive devices. Headphone cables can act as a nice antenna to help spread this radiation.

I do agree with many posters above. Even if the radio waves prove to be harmless, if cell phones are allowed to be used on phones many planes will crash due to the rioting in the passenger section.

Posted by: JohnK on April 10, 2007 at 3:38 AM | PERMALINK
The FAA is the outfit than bans them, and they could give a rat's ass about cell phone network resources.

IIRC, both the FAA and FCC have bans on cell phones in airplanes, for different reasons. The FAA because of aviation safety, the FCC because of cell phone network concerns.

Posted by: cmdicely on April 10, 2007 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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