- It’s safer for everyone if you put your phone on airplane mode when traveling.
- Cell phone signals can interfere with some of an aircraft’s critical systems.
- 5G technology is less risky and will soon start being usable on commercial flights.
When Gila Drazen flies, she usually forgets or neglects to put her phone on airplane mode.
“It’s laziness. It’s just plain laziness,” she told USA TODAY.
Drazen is not alone. Although not a well-researched question, a 2017 survey by Allianz Global Assistance found that around 40% of passengers said they left their cell service on during the flight.
But Federal Aviation Administration regulations still require all passengers to use airplane mode while in the air. This is why an announcement is made on each flight.
“FAA regulations prohibit the use of certain portable electronic devices on board aircraft unless the operator has determined that they will not interfere with navigation or communication systems,” the agency said. agency in a press release.
Although changes are coming.
European regulators recently paved the way for 5G-enabled mobile devices to keep their transmitters on during flights, and experts say the United States is likely to follow suit. But that doesn’t mean everyone will be able to make calls from the air tomorrow. Not all cellular services are created equal when it comes to aircraft safety.
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So what’s the problem if you don’t put your phone on airplane mode today, especially with a non-5G phone?
“My theory has always been that it was a crowd control issue. The same way when they start talking about cell phone service on the subway, we all assumed everyone would take the phone and talk, talk.” Drazen said. “The question I have is what my passive cellphone signal consumption could do, you know?”
Why do I have to put my phone on airplane mode?
According to experts and the FAA, it’s a matter of safety for you and your fellow passengers.
Shawn Pruchnicki, a professor at the Center for Aviation Studies at Ohio State University, said the big issue was potential interference with an aircraft’s navigation systems.
“Where it really matters is on landing, especially when we’re doing an instrument landing,” he said. “These signals are very, very precise, and the autopilot driving these signals is also very, very precise. This is not the time when you want any variability, especially when you have terrain considerations.”
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As the FAA statement above indicates, in order to allow passengers to use their cellular service on board, operators would have to prove that the devices do not interfere with the aircraft’s communication or navigation systems. .
“There is no extensive testing done on all different types of aircraft combined with all different types of cellphones,” Pruchnicki said. “There are so many different combinations here.”
Also, he said, at cruising altitude, most phones aren’t powerful enough to connect to cell towers on the ground, but they drain your battery trying to connect anyway.
What’s the worst that can happen?
In theory, electronic interference could cause a plane crash – although there is no evidence that this ever happened.
“From an accident investigation point of view, we have no evidence that it caused an accident, but that does not mean that he cannot be responsible for an accident or that he cannot cause damage. ‘accident,” Pruchnicki said. “It’s even more unknown because the new planes we have are even more sophisticated and even more reliant on automation.”
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Pruchnicki added that the Federal Communications Commission has discovered that cell phones that are not in flight mode can overload ground networks, especially during takeoff and landing, as they attempt to connect to multiple towers at the same time. time.
How is airplane Wi-Fi different? And what about 5G?
Many airlines offer internet access on board and passengers can use their personal devices to access it, even in airplane mode. Pruchnicki said in-vehicle Wi-Fi systems don’t pose the same risks as cellular networks.
They operate at lower power and at different frequencies than cell phones and flight instruments, presenting less risk of interference.
Likewise, 5G uses wavelengths that are less likely to interfere with aircraft instruments than older generation cellular services.
“In principle, any wireless device can interfere with aircraft systems such as the radio altimeter,” said Eduardo Rojas-Nastrucci, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “In the specific case of 5G, there are bands that are far enough in frequency from the frequencies used by the aircraft for the risk to be minimal.”
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Because the matter hasn’t been thoroughly researched and tested, most experts say it’s just common sense to follow FAA regulations.
“Without plans to investigate this with any level of certainty and because it is quite rare to be able to receive a signal above 10 or 15,000 feet, there is really no point in risking safety to modify this restriction,” Pruchnicki said. “With so many unknowns and the lack of testing, why would you put the flight at risk just to let your family know you’re five minutes from landing?”
As 5G service becomes more mainstream and the airline industry moves towards in-flight cellphone use, Rojas-Nastrucci said it’s still a good idea for those with older cellphones. generation to continue using airplane mode, even if the risk is relatively low.
“If you’re on a freeway, if you have a car right next to you in the lane, there’s a higher chance of interference than if the car is 10 lanes,” he said, adding that the technology that enables 5G use on board probably won’t be compatible with older generation receivers anyway.
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Drazen, however, said she would probably keep forgetting to flip the switch.
“Will it change my behavior? Probably not,” she said. “Will I feel guilty if the plane I’m on crashes? 100%. Am I willing to take that risk? I’m not sure.”
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