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We all know the routine by heart: “Please ensure your seats are upright, tray tables stowed, window shades are up, laptops are stored in the overhead bins, and electronic devices are set to flight mode.”

Now, the first four are reasonable. Window shades need to be up to see if there’s an emergency, such as a fire. Tray tables need to be stowed and seats upright so we can get out of the row quickly. Laptops can become projectiles in an emergency, as the seat back pockets are not strong enough to contain them.

And mobile phones need to be set to flight mode so they can’t cause an emergency for the airplane, right? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

Technology has advanced a great deal.

Aviation navigation and communication rely on radio services, which have been coordinated to minimize interference since the 1920s.

The digital technology currently in use is much more advanced than the older analog technologies we used 60 years ago. Research has shown personal electronic devices can emit a signal within the same frequency band as the aircraft’s communications 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 on aircraft interference and found no issues with computers or other personal devices during non-critical phases of flight. (Take-offs and landings are considered the critical phases.)

The US Federal Communications Commission also began to create reserved frequency bandwidths for different uses — such as mobile phones and aircraft navigation and communications — so they do not interfere with one another. Governments around the globe developed the same strategies and policies to prevent interference problems with aviation. In the EU, electronic devices have been allowed to stay on since 2014.

2.2 billion passengers

With these global standards in place, why has the aviation industry continued to ban the use of mobile phones? One of the problems lies with something you may not expect — ground interference.

A series of towers connect wireless networks; they could become overloaded if passengers flying over these ground networks all use their phones. The number of passengers that passed in 2021 was over 2.2 billion, half of the 2019 passenger numbers. The wireless companies might have a point here.

Of course, the most significant change in recent years is the move to a new standard when it comes to mobile networks. Current 5G wireless networks — desirable for their higher speed data transfer — have caused concern for many within the aviation industry.

Radiofrequency bandwidth is limited, yet we are still trying to add more new devices. The aviation industry points out that the 5G wireless network bandwidth spectrum is remarkably close to the reserved bandwidth spectrum, which may cause interference with navigation systems near airports that assist with landing aircraft.

Airport operators in Australia and the US have voiced aviation safety concerns linked to the 5G rollout; however, it appears to have rolled out without such problems in the European Union. Either way, limiting mobile phone use on planes is prudent while issues around 5G are sorted out.

Ultimately, we can’t forget air rage.

Most airlines now provide customers with Wi-Fi services that are either pay-as-you-go or free. With new Wi-Fi technologies, passengers could theoretically use their mobile phones to make video calls with friends or clients on flights.

On a recent flight, I spoke with a cabin attendant and asked her opinion on phone use during flights. She stated that it would be an inconvenience for the cabin crew to wait for passengers to finish their call to ask them if they would like any drinks or something to eat. On an airliner with 200+ passengers, in-flight service would take longer to complete if everyone was making phone calls.

For me, the problem with in-flight use of phones is more about the social experience of having 200+ people on a plane and all potentially talking at once. When disruptive passenger behavior, including “air rage,” is increasingly frequent, phone use in flight might be another trigger that changes the whole flight experience.

Disruptive behaviors take on various forms, from non-compliance to safety requirements, such as not wearing seat belts, verbal altercations with fellow passengers and cabin crew, to physical fights with passengers and cabin crews — typically identified as air rage.

In conclusion — in-flight use of phones does not currently impair the aircraft’s ability to operate. But cabin crews may prefer not to be delayed in providing in-flight service to all passengers — it’s a lot of people to serve.

However, 5G technology is encroaching on the radio bandwidth of aircraft navigation systems; we’ll need more research to answer the 5G question regarding interference with aircraft navigation during landings. Remember that take-offs are optional when discussing the two most critical phases of flight, but landings are mandatory.The Conversation

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