Higher Calling

Why Do Airlines Ban Midflight Cell Phone Calls?

Q: On a recent flight from Milwaukee to LaGuardia, I accidentally left my cell phone on inside my carry-on. As the mere existence of this note attests, we didn't crash. Which got me thinking: Is the ban on midflight cell-phone chatter really necessary?

Boy, have you ever asked the $64 million question. Plenty of folks think a lone cell call can knock airplane instruments hopelessly askew, while an equally sizable number pooh-pooh such fears as poppycock. After sifting through the mountains of evidence, Mr. Roboto's of the mind that, yes, wireless devices can likely mess with airborne safety, but the odds are super-low. That's not to endorse breaking the law, though, as using your cell while aloft is definitely illegal—for the moment, at least.

The argument against using your mobile while flying has to do with the gizmo's electromagnetic emissions. Like all wireless devices, cell phones give off very low doses of radiation when powered on. The theory goes that this energy can wreak havoc on avionics, like those all-important systems that, you know, help land the plane. Think of the way your vacuum cleaner causes your TV to go all screwy, or your PC causes a buzz in your clock radio, and you'll understand why this makes sense.

There have been lots of anecdotal reports from flight crews of illicit cell-phone use that led to near-misses. The trick here, though, is proving cause and effect; just because a plane suddenly banked 30 degrees doesn't necessarily mean it was the fault of the guy in seat 12B who left his Nokia on. Keep in mind that there's tons of electromagnetic radiation swirling about the planet, not to mention more mundane annoyances like aging instruments or bad weather.

One of the latest studies to support the anti-cell position comes from Britain's Civil Aviation Authority, which concluded that phone calls skewed cockpit gauges by up to five degrees; viewers of Die Hard 2 will recall that this is enough to cause catastrophe. But the CAA's tests didn't exactly replicate real conditions—the researchers held the phones just a foot from the instruments. In fact, despite the myriad reports of cell calls causing planes to go haywire, researchers have never been able to replicate such an incident, try as they might.

Just think of the thousands of dolts who daily disobey the no-cell rule, much like yourself. Unless they're actively chattering away, there's really no way the crew's going to figure out they've got scofflaws on board. Remember that guy who sealed himself up in a crate and shipped himself from New York to Dallas? Desperate to escape the cargo hold, he tried turning on his cell phone, hoping to spur an investigation. No dice.

OK, Mr. Roboto bets you're thinking, "Better safe than sorry, right?" Agreed—even if the threat is only theoretical, it's best to refrain for now. In-flight calls are illegal, and not just because of the aviation authorities. The Federal Communications Commission also has a ban in place, since airborne calls can flummox cell networks; the calls use high power to seek out multiple towers, which can jam things up for grounded users.

Can't stand the thought of being sans cell above Flyover Country? The good news is that the Federal Aviation Administration has commissioned a study on the matter. If these big brains agree the threat's overblown, it could clear the way for midflight cell use in a few years' time. One possibility is that the FAA could approve cell use on planes outfitted with technology from AirCell, a Colorado company that says it has the whole interference issue figured out. AirCell's silver bullet is a converter that intercepts cell calls, makes sure they're using the lowest power possible, then routes them to designated towers on the ground (thereby assuaging the FCC's ire). All for around $1 a minute, less than a third of what one of those nasty Airfone calls runs you.

Until the FAA and FCC give the go-ahead, though, you're going to have to keep quiet. If you'll simply perish from being incommunicado, try using Verizon's new e-mail service on United and Continental. Yeah, the base fee is $16, but that's a small price to pay for checking out how many "Thicker, Longer Penis!" spams you've gotten since takeoff, right? Right?


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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