Editor’s note: The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN featured the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. Content is produced exclusively by The Conversation.
We all know the routine by heart: “Please make sure your chairs are in the upright position, tray tables are stowed, window shades are in place, laptops are stored in the overhead bins and the electronic devices are set to flight mode.”
Now, the first four make sense, don’t they? Window shades should be up so that we can see in case of an emergency, such as a fire. The tray tables had to be placed and the seats straightened so that we could get out of the row easily. Laptops can become projectiles in an emergency, because the pockets on the back of the seat are not strong enough to contain them.
And mobile phones should be set to flight mode so they don’t cause an emergency on the plane, right? Well, that depends on who you ask.
Aviation navigation and communications rely on radio services, which have been coordinated to minimize interference since the 1920s.
The digital technology used today is more advanced than some of the old analog technologies we used even 60 years ago. Research has shown that personal electronic devices can emit a signal within the same frequency band as aircraft communication and navigation systems, creating what is known as electromagnetic interference.
But in 1992, the US Federal Aviation Authority and Boeing, in an independent study, investigated the use of electronic devices to interfere with aircraft and found no issues with computers or other personal electronic devices during in non-critical phases of flight. (Takeoffs and landings are considered critical phases.)
The US Federal Communications Commission also started to create reserved frequency bandwidths for different uses – such as mobile phones and aircraft navigation and communication – so that they do not interfere with each other. Governments around the world are developing similar strategies and policies to avoid aviation interference problems. In the EU, electronic devices have been allowed to remain since 2014.
Why then, with these global standards in place, does the aviation industry continue to ban the use of mobile phones? One of the problems lies in something you don’t expect – EARTH interference.
Wireless networks are connected to a series of towers; networks can become overloaded if passengers flying on these ground networks are all using their phones. The number of passengers who flew in 2021 is over 2.2 billion, and that is half of what the 2019 passenger numbers were. The wireless companies may have a point here.
Of course, when it comes to mobile networks, the biggest change in recent years is the transition to a new standard. Current 5G wireless networks – preferred for their higher data transfer speeds – have caused concern among many within the aviation industry.
Radio frequency bandwidth is limited, but we are still trying to add new devices to it. The aviation industry has pointed out that the 5G wireless network bandwidth spectrum is too close to the reserved aviation bandwidth spectrum, which could cause interference with navigation systems near airports that help aircraft land.
Airline executives are worried about your cellphone’s 5G network. Here’s Why (2021)
Airport operators in Australia and the US have expressed aviation safety concerns linked to the 5G rollout, although it appears there are no such problems in the European Union. Either way, it’s wise to limit mobile phone use on airplanes while issues around 5G are sorted out.
Most airlines now provide customers with pay-as-you-go or free Wi-Fi services. With new Wi-Fi technologies, passengers can theoretically use their mobile phones to make video calls to friends or clients on the trip.
On a recent flight, I spoke with a cabin attendant and asked her opinion on phone use during flights. It’s an inconvenience for cabin crew to wait for passengers to finish their call to ask them if they want anything to drink or eat, he said. On an airliner with 200+ passengers, in-flight service will take longer to complete if everyone is on the phone.
For me, the problem with in-flight phone use is about the social experience of having 200+ people on a plane, and all potentially talking at once. At a time when disruptive passenger behavior, including “air rage”, is becoming more frequent, in-flight phone use may be another factor that changes the entire flight experience.
Disruptive behavior takes many forms, from non-compliance to safety requirements such as not wearing seat belts, verbal altercations with fellow passengers and cabin crew, to physical altercations with passengers and cabin crew – commonly identified as air rage.
In conclusion – the in-flight use of phones currently does not impair the aircraft’s ability to operate. But the cabin crew may prefer not to delay in providing flight services to all passengers – many people will be served.
However, 5G technology exceeds the radio bandwidth of aircraft navigation systems; we will need more research to answer the 5G question about interference with aircraft navigation during landings. Remember that when we talk about the two most critical phases of flight, takeoffs are optional – but landings are required.