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Monday, April 19, 2010

Phones and Flying

A few months ago I was flying into National Airport in DC, and I noticed that the teenage boy next to me was texting.  I’m a wimpy flyer, and since September 11th the landings at National have become particularly harrowing because pilots are required to follow the Potomac River (an awfully twisty river) to the airport.


So while clutching my armrests and taking very deep breaths, I tell the kid next to me to stop texting.  To his credit (or perhaps because I didn’t look completely rational), the kid put his phone away, and after we landed he asked why I wanted him to stop texting.  I told him that they tell us to shut off our phones during flights for a reason, and so it must not be safe.  To which he responded “do you think that is really true?”

I’m not certain whether it is unsafe to text or make cell phone calls while flying.  I’ve occasionally seen news reports that some airline or another is going to allow cell phone use in flight.  But I’ve always interpreted the instructions from the pilot/crew to turn off phones for the flight as an implicit warning that their use is dangerous (maybe the warning has been explicit on some flights, I can’t remember).  But without clear information that such behavior *is* safe, shouldn’t we keep our phones off?  At least when flying next to someone as scared as me . . .?

Posted by Carissa Hessick on April 19, 2010 at 01:27 PM in Travel | Permalink


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Cell phone signal is too low to screw up an airplane navigation. I do not understand why do people are scared of this?

Posted by: Bruno Araujo | May 29, 2020 7:01:08 AM

Cell phone signal is too low to screw up an airplane navigation. I do not understand why do people still afraid of this.

Posted by: Michael | May 29, 2020 6:59:32 AM

Andy, the seat belt example is horrible, because there is no externality. I have no problem if you leave your seat belt off: if you hit your head on the ceiling, no loss to me.

Where the equilibrium breaks down is if there is an externality. Your use of a cell phone means that you get the full upside of talking in flight, but part of the downside (reduce plane safety) gets passed on to me. We can debate how much it reduces plane safety, but the point is that you are not bearing the full cost of your behavior.

A better analogy is the carpool lane. I guarantee you that if use of the carpool lane was purely based on self-policing, then the carpool lane would instantly become clogged. What you are doing on airplanes is no different than deciding that you are going to break that silly rule about driving in the carpool lane only if you have enough people.

Posted by: TJ | Apr 20, 2010 8:42:25 PM

I am also a rule-follower and just do what people tell me. However, if phones were really dangerous then they would ban them, like other dangerous objects such as bottled water, toothpaste and cuticle scissors. A million years ago, there were phones in the headrests, and planes didn't seem to crash if you called your mom in-flight.

Kudos to Toby Ziegler.

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Apr 20, 2010 1:01:24 PM

Every single flight takes off and lands with cell phones and other transmitting devices active, and this has been occurring for years. That's because people either forget to turn them off, or don't know how. That's millions of flights that have landed safely. So I think the interference risk is nonexistent.

But I think there may be a safety aspect to the rule. I think the "no devices on take-off and landing" rule is probably a subset of the "no doing anything on take-off and landing" rule, i.e., passengers need to keep the aisles clear and be alert in case anything happens. So you want that teenager next to you to pay attention when the pilot says "Brace for impact" over the intercom.

BTW I occasionally get nervous on take-offs in particular, mostly due to watching too many air disaster documentaries. (It turns out there's several scary ways an airplane can crash.) I find it helps to focus on the flight attendants. They fly multiple times a day, 250 times a year or more, for years. And being a flight attendant is safer than being a gas station attendant. Since they're still around, I figure, my odds are pretty good.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Apr 19, 2010 10:13:07 PM

At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I agree with Rick. I may check my blackberry messages now and then, but I don't talk on my cell phone whether on airplanes, buses, trains, etc. Also, and people look at me weird when I do this, but in the extremely rare instances that I move my seat back I will ask the person behind me first. I would much rather someone download videos on their iPhone than lean their chair back in front of me.

I also doubt, as TJ suggests, that social order inevitable results when a few people break some silly rule, whether on an airplane or not. If someone doesn't wear a seat belt for a few minutes, I doubt that the 200 other passengers are going to take this as a sign to stand up and jump around. And if someone takes 2 cookies (rather than 1 cookie) from the dessert tray, I doubt that everyone takes this as a sign to raid the airplane food stock. (I once did see someone ask for 7 bags of cookies on a JetBlue flight because her "kitchen was empty at home." From what I could tell, this did not make the rest of us feel like suckers.)

There are many examples of situations where someone does something that he's not "supposed" to without causing mass hysteria and social disorder. Of course, there are also situations where not following the rules does cause problems, but *inconspicuously* checking one's email does not seem to be one of them. If the person sitting next to me were white-knuckled with fear over landing (Hi Carissa :) ), then I would refrain.

Posted by: andy | Apr 19, 2010 9:09:40 PM

The non-pretextual reason to ban the use of cell 'phones during flight is that it would be intolerable to listen to the blather of one's fellow passengers for hours as they yack away their high-altitude boredom. Indeed, the annoyance of being the captive audience of this chatter would amount to a clear and present threat to the health and safety of the passengers, who might become either the victims or perpetrators of violence induced by severe stress of listening to their fellow passengers.

If the FAA can ban smoking to save our lungs, then why not cell 'phone blather to save our sanity? Why must they instead promulgate that nonsense about interfering with the electronic navigation system of the 'plane?

Posted by: Rick Hills | Apr 19, 2010 8:54:23 PM

Carissa, it is basically impossible to prove that something is safe, because it requires proving a null hypothesis. All that can be done is to show that it is unlikely to be unsafe. As several commentators have noted above, word on the street appears to be that a couple of cell phones are unlikely to bring the plane down, but we have inadequate information about what might happen if everyone was using a cell phone at take off.

That kind of means we have three options: (1) allow everyone to use their cell phone and roll the dice to see if the plane crashes, (2) ban all cell phones, or (3) selectively allow cell phones. If you choose option 3, good luck getting an allocation mechanism. The most intuitive one is to auction it off, either directly (i.e. phones become the next added charge) or indirectly (i.e. first class gets to use cell phones), but you can imagine the backlash against that. The status quo is really an allocation system based on unscrupulousness: cheaters like Andy get to use cell phones but law-abiding people don't. The problem with this system of allocation is that the equilibrium becomes unstable--as more law-abiding people see the cheaters get away without consequences, the more people feel like suckers, and soon we collapse into option 1.

Posted by: TJ | Apr 19, 2010 8:30:07 PM

dewussafy and there is no problem-

Posted by: dewussafy | Apr 19, 2010 8:07:35 PM

I think the planes always followed the Potomac into National, even before 9/11.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Apr 19, 2010 5:58:58 PM

"Mythbusters" tested this myth in 2006 (episode 49 here), and if I recall correctly, the conclusion was that it was extremely unlikely to affect avionics or other instruments, but not impossible.

Posted by: Tung Yin | Apr 19, 2010 5:47:52 PM

Simple wikipedia search reveals:

"Mobile telephones are intentionally designed with low power output. A tower is the center of a "cell" and due to attenuation with distance (inverse square law) cell phone transmissions can usually be received only weakly by towers in adjacent cells, and not at all in cells farther away (non-adjacent cells). This allows the channel used by any given phone to be reused by other phones in non-adjacent cells. This principle allows tens or hundreds of thousands of people to use their phones at the same time in a given metropolitan area while using only a limited number of channels.
"Channel reuse works because from a mobile phone on the ground, there will only be one "closest" tower that can possibly use a particular group of frequencies, CDMA codes, or time slots. The software that manages the system assumes that the signal from a phone on a particular tower can, on other towers, only be "heard" at greatly reduced signal strength. The frequency, code, or time slot used by the phone can therefore be reused by other phones on other towers.
"If a mobile phone is operated from an aircraft in flight above a city, this assumption is no longer valid, because the towers of many different cells may be about equidistant from the phone. Multiple towers might assume that the phone is under their control. The phone could be assigned a free channel by one tower, but could be heard on other towers using the same channel group, and the channel might already be in use on those towers. This could cause interference with existing calls. It is possible that the software controlling the towers could crash. Even if the software can cope with hearing the same phone on multiple, non-adjacent towers, the result at best is an overall decrease in the system's capacity."

It's not about safety or the FAA.

Posted by: LegalCookie | Apr 19, 2010 5:24:39 PM

I think the only way a cell phone will threaten the safety of the flight is if you use it to hit the pilot over the head.

I always turn my blackberry on during the descent...seeing the new messages pile up makes the last 10-20 minutes of an often-painful flight less painful. I'm usually not conspicuous about it, though.

Posted by: andy | Apr 19, 2010 4:38:58 PM

My general understanding (which is admittedly not deep) is that if everyone on the plane was making a phone call while the plane took off, it could have some kind of interference. But I'd be surprised if one or two people keeping their phones on during takeoff could derail such a sophisticated machine... at least that's what I hope.

But when it comes down to it, I'm with you, Carissa. It's so easy just to shut the things off for 10 minutes while the pilot does his/her thing. So until they tell us it's fine to do so, I'm gonna keep obeying their (maybe pointless) orders.

Posted by: GJELblogger | Apr 19, 2010 4:05:11 PM

The greater concern during take-off and landing is with interference with avionics navigation and communications. There's not much evidence that consumer electronics actually do create such interference.



Posted by: keith | Apr 19, 2010 2:02:46 PM

Just to be clear, it is the FCC not the FAA that bans cell phones, and the primary concern is actually disruption to cell towers, not safety for the plane.

Posted by: anon | Apr 19, 2010 1:54:22 PM

Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?

Posted by: Toby Ziegler | Apr 19, 2010 1:53:32 PM

In general, I agree that when the FAA says we should do stuff while flying, that we should. That said, I think a lot of stuff they have you do is not helpful and some is a bit silly. I also wonder whether cell phones are that dangerous when we now see wi-fi on airplanes. It's unclear how one signal can be more harmful than the other - perhaps it's a frequency overlap.

I, for one, would like Kindles (with wireless off, of course) to be recategorized as watches and other small digital devices so I can leave mine on during takeoff.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 19, 2010 1:50:24 PM

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