“Its not safe to have fruit on board a plane. An apple or pear might have a grub in it, which could hatch into a wasp, which could get into the cockpit. If that distracted the pilot as he was coming in to land in fog and if the ILS (Instrument Landing System) malfunctioned, the consequences dont bear thinking about.”
Were back to the old nonsense about the dangers of mobile phones on planes, arent we? Were dealing with those routine announcements that “electronic equipment can be a danger to navigation, so please ensure your cell phone is switched off until you are in the terminal building.” Were dealing with people who sincerely, totally and truly believe that if you switch on your cell phone at 35,000 feet, the plane will likely veer off course and plunge into the ocean.
Using a cell phone on a plane is one of those theoretical dangers. There is some evidence to suggest that, under a combination of circumstances, on some types of planes, in a certain situation, some instrumentation might be affected by a nearby cell phone and, if that particular instrumentation were critical to dealing with an unusual emergency, then things might go wrong.
However, to completely forbid the use of cell phones on planes seems extreme. For example, youd never expect a pilot to be happy flying with a co-pilot who kept a pet wasp in the cockpit, but banning all fruit on all flights might seem a tad excessive as a way of preventing this. Its also perfectly possible that someone might trip over a Persian rug and break a bone, but again, to insist on bare floors in all buildings seems an odd way to deal with the risk.
So, the news that Europe has finally decided to sponsor the Wireless Cabin project is a simple victory for common sense. First off, if you didnt realize that people routinely travel with fully powered-up cell phones in their carry-on luggage, simply forgetting to switch them off, then you must be that strange person who can sleep in airplane seats. If an operating cell phone could crash planes, theyd all be at the bottom of the ocean.
I have never, once, been on a flight where the pilot said, “Emergency! Someone has a working cell phone, and all our equipment is going haywire! Find this piece of equipment and disable it immediately!” And theres a pretty good reason why they wouldnt. No, its not that it would terrify the passengers. Its because the pilot has no idea whether there is a working cell phone on board. (Actually, if there is one, its probably in his pocket.)
Yes, the theoretical danger remains, and can never be ruled out. But the real reason youre asked to switch off your phone is that from 35,000 feet, it will broadcast to a couple hundred cells on the ground, and all of them will attempt to register your phone with headquarters. In other words, its the phone operators who find it a problem.
What has happened is that theyve finally decided to wake up and smell the burned toast. Banning phones on flights doesnt work. What would work, however, is what the Wireless Cabin project proposes: use the Internet to route the calls to a local cell in the plane; then, the phones would cut back their transmit power to the point where the ground cells cant detect it.
Of course, this would also have the secondary advantage of reducing any possible interference to the aircraft avionics. Whether it would actually work for making phone calls is another question. The latest cell phones are VOIP (voice over IP) devices and while the worlds mobile phone operators have gone to a lot of trouble to hide how easy it is to do VOIP, the trick isnt that simple over satellite uplinks. Add together all the latency issues and theres a pretty good chance that most calls would be pretty poor quality.
The proponents of Wireless Cabin say theres money to be made in in-flight phone calls—Im deeply skeptical. I think they have a simple choice of charging very little and seeing quite a few people make calls, or charging a premium and seeing nobody use it.
But thats not the point! The point is to stop these wireless devices from interfering with phone management software on the ground. And if phones can find a legitimate cell on the aircraft, theyll stop screaming, “Help! Im a poor lost lonely telephone!” to every cell for a radius of 20 miles around the spot below the plane.
A final point for the anxious: If cell phones really were a clear and present danger to the aircraft, which is more likely—that airline staff would broadcast a bland announcement asking you to check that your phone is switched off, or that they would run a phone detector over you and your luggage?
To put it another way, would you be reassured by this equally bland announcement: “Lethal weapons can be a hazard to flight safety, so we request that passengers not use them during this portion of the flight”?
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