Airbus Magic In-flight Cell Phone Technology May Be Make-Believe

Airbus makes it possible to make in-flight cell phone calls. Is it a real technology advancement, or does it work like my anti-lion powder?

So, it is official. You can use a phone on the plane, and the thing wont plunge into the sea or crash into a mountain.

Youll never, ever get an engineer to sign a bit of paper to say so, however, so it was gosh-darned clever of the guys at Airbus to come up with a "stone soup" solution.

Stone soup, as you may remember from your Aesops fables, was the way a soldier tricked a stingy neighbor into making a meal. "If you havent got any food to spare, can I just make some soup from this stone?" the soldier asked. Then, having put the stone into the saucepan, he gradually extended the recipe. He borrowed various vegetables to "flavor" the soup, until hed borrowed leeks and carrots and potatoes and a little meat and some grain and ...

As Ive remarked more than once, I fly a lot. On most flights, Ive heard a phone ringing in the overhead locker. The plane doesnt fall out of the sky. It doesnt even veer from side to side. Certainly, nobody rushes ashen-faced down the aisle shouting, "Emergency! Emergency! A cell phone is being used onboard, and the pilot is losing control!"

Even if you didnt know (as I do) that several pilots openly use their own cell phones during final approach, you might have noticed that cell phone detection gear is both cheap and easy to obtain—and yet, no airline scanned you for a switched-on phone when boarding.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about Airbus in-flight technology.

You can imagine the excitement if they took the same approach to knives. "We know some of our passengers may have weapons, but we have asked them not to use them during the flight." And (at the risk of really repeating myself), imagine if you leapt out of your chair and brandished your Nokia at the flight attendant, saying ferociously, "Fly this plane to Cuba or I switch on this cell phone!" The best reaction you could hope for would be, "Please sit down, were trying to sell duty-free shopping."

You cant say that cell phones dont affect aircraft. They just might. Nobody knows exactly what circumstances might cause this to happen, since you cant prove a negative. I dont think there are any ducks swimming on an underground lake 20 miles below the surface of Bolivia, but I cant prove that. There are no programmers developing CRM applications for use on Mars, either. But they just conceivably might be, and nobody can prove they arent.

And, as Dilbert remarked once, if you, as the certifying engineer, get it wrong, youre personally responsible for the death of thousands.

So what Airbus did was magic. They installed a system that reduces the emissions of the cell phone to such a low level that they are undetectable by anything except another cell phone.

/zimages/5/28571.gifGuy Kewney has criticized the cell phone ban before. Click here to read what he had to say.

Put a picocell— a very small cellular coverage area—on the aircraft. All the phones talk to the picocell. None of them can reach cells on the ground, and lo! The plane doesnt fall out of the sky.

Actually, its more like my famous anti-lion powder. I protect myself, every day, from attacks by lions. I sprinkle my anti-lion powder around the streets of London and spray it into the Underground railway system. Bingo! Im never attacked by lions.

Naturally, this is because there are no lions in London. But of course, thats because of my anti-lion powder. And the cell phone doesnt cause the plane to fall out of the sky, and thats because of the picocell.

"Ah, clever technology," say the authorities. "That changes the whole picture, and we can certify it!"

"People arent stupid," Dilbert protested once, as you may remember. "Actually," retorted Dogbert, "all my research shows they are. The human brain is divided into four quadrants: dumb, stupid, ignorant and ear-wax."

And you know what? If you point this out, youll get angry letters from engineers. They wont be attacking airlines for failing to scan for active cell phones. No, theyll be attacking you, for saying something that might cause someone to switch a phone on, on the plane.

Guy Kewney is eWEEKs European correspondent. Based in London, he is the chief author and operator of NewsWireless.Net," the home of Guy Kewneys Mobile Campaign.

Read Guy Kewneys other recent columns about trends in mobile and wireless technology.

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