In full flight, online

Some time ago I was sitting in a plane about to take off on a short regional flight. The doors had been closed and the cabin crew were making the usual safety announcements. I imagine they were the usual ones, though if I am honest I have to admit I’ve kind of stopped listening to these. In any case, on this occasion my attention was focused on my neighbour. He was holding his mobile phone, and turning it nervously around in his hand. It was visibly not switched off. He saw me looking and said, ‘I’m waiting for a call’. I pointed out to him that he was supposed to have switched it off. He mumbled something unintelligible and continued fidgeting with the (still powered on) phone. As the plain taxied to the runway, he continued doing this, hiding it whenever he thought he would be seen by a member of the crew, and then taking it out again.

I have on the whole become sceptical whether having the phone on can really be a safety issue. If it were, cabin attendants would surely demand to see each phone to check it was off, or more more likely still we wouldn’t be allowed take it in the cabin. But nevertheless, I was astounded at my neighbour, who continued to fidget with the phone until long after take-off, at which point I lost interest.

A year or so ago it looked as if my anxious neighbour might be getting his way. Irish airline Ryanair announced it was introducing inflight mobile phone calls. I only experienced it on one flight, on which we were told that mobile phones could be used after take-off. My neighbour on this flight duly took out his phone to see whether it worked. The phone, once powered on, did indeed register some sort of network signal, but when he tried calling a number apparently absolutely nothing happened. One or two others were trying (and experiencing) something similar, but most passengers just ignored the cabin crew’s invitation to make a call. So does this mean that even the more fanatical mobile phone addicts find there is a limit to the thing? At any rate I never again was on a flight where the facility (if it was that) was available.

My grandmother used to say that it is only when we stop talking that we realise we have nothing to say. And if we stay silent long enough, we can begin to communicate properly. And so I can say to any other airline considering this that mobile services in the air will not entice me one little bit. Wireless internet, now that’s another matter. After all, I have standards. Double standards.

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13 Comments on “In full flight, online”

  1. brian t Says:

    The basic issue with mobile phones on flights is that the radio power they put out is highly variable. In a plane at altitude, trying to talk to base stations on the ground, they’re fairly blasting out the RF at 1-2 watts. When the base station is close by – say, in the plane – they throttle right back to tens of milliwatts. It’s not a black or white issue, it’s a question of the amount of interference against which you can successfully shield the instruments.

    But I agree with the general point – I see little enthusiasm for typical cellphone use on planes.

  2. no-name Says:

    “I’m on the plane”.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      cryptic comment…interesting to see how old media type of habits don’t die in the new media …

      • jfryar Says:

        I’ve often wondered how long it is before a new condition is diagnosed – ‘Mobile Phone Induced Irritability Syndrome’. Big pharma can then sell prozac and beta blockers to those affected.

        As someone who is not irritated by the sound of human speech, I’m of the opinion that people who complain about the inanity of phone conversations or are annoyed by people talking are suffering from some sort of psychological problem. When people feel irrationally angry over road users, we say they suffer from ‘road rage’ and send them for anger management, stress relief, and maybe a bit of yoga. I see no difference between road rage and irrational annoyance at the use of mobile phones. I’ve decided already to use my phone wherever I can, not out of spite, but so those afflicted can seek the medical help they need. 🙂

  3. jfryar Says:

    Aircraft have a number of guidance systems including GPS satellite positioning and Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) that use accelerometers and gyroscopes to determine the change in the aircraft’s starting position. Many of these systems are not built by aircraft manufacturers – like engines, they’re bought from external contractors. Those contractors build equipment to meet international regulations on electromagnetic interference and electromagnetic compatibility. In other words, there are guidelines on how much interference a device can produce and how it should respond to that interference.

    Every electronic device produces EM interference by virtue of having current flowing through circuitry. Furthermore a sudden draw of current, such as when you power a device on, can give an initial pulse of EM radiation. Devices with motors or speakers contain electromagnets which can emit pulses of EM as the current varies. Some of the navigation systems on a plane might be a decade old in design, and how they will behave with interference from such devices is largely unknown. At the moment the science is uncertain. Studies that have concluded that devices could interfere with aircraft systems are generally not repeatable. Although it appears that the interference is probably negligable, airlines and manufactuers take a precautionary view and ask passengers to switch off devices. Often there is an element of ‘pathological’ science involved – pilots have reported a correlation between problems in starting up equipment and passenger use of devices although, as I’ve said, studies checking that were inconclusive. Therefore much of it will depend on the captain who, in the end, always has the final say.

    One of the issues is that a study of the effects is extremely difficult. Interference will depend on what devices are used and where in the cabin they’re located. To analyse the problem is costly and the question is who pays for the costs? Is it airlines, aircraft manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, governments, etc? If you’re running an airline, spend the money, and conclude there’s no problem while flying, say, Airbus or Boeing aircraft, I’ve effectively told every other airline what the conclusion was and paid a fortune in research everyone else benefits from. So, at the moment, in the abscence of hard data, everyone will simply be asked to switch off phones. The FCC is looking at introducing limited use of phones on planes but, since we’re talking international regulations, it takes time to impliment such things.

    As for using devices on aircraft, it depends on where you are. Mobile phone networks allocate channels and reuse these channels so multiple people can be connected simultaneously. The software controlling this distribution assumes that you’ll be closer to one mast than another. In essence the network shuffles you around, kicking you off some masts in favour of closer masts and reallocates the channels you were using. If you’re in a plane you can connect to multiple masts simultaneously and there is a danger that the software won’t cope, could crash, or could result in interference. To use a phone on a plane, the airlines would need to install masts on the plane and then send the data back to ground, probably by some form of satellite system.

    Plus, as the phones try to connect to the base stations at that sort of distance, they operate at high power. So the interfernce risk increases.

  4. no-name Says:

    I have to wonder how many people in the world can actually be interested in hearing the usually very banal thoughts of people who are using public transport, i.e, people who use their phone whenever they can. There is surley some kind of narcissism involved when a person gets on a train and thinks that their entire address book needs to know that amazing detail.

  5. no-name Says:

    Anna — thanks for the link. I skimmed the article. However, even if the authors of the article are correct in their assertion that people use their mobile phones on public transport to create a comfort bubble for themselves, I would still argue that this boils down to narcissism — they think that they and their comfort bubble are so important that they don’t care if they are disturbing the people around them, or indeed the people they are calling. Note, the article also states that the creation of a mobile phone comfort bubble on public transport also bursts the comfort bubble of other public transport users (I assume those who would like some peace and quiet).

    • jfryar Says:

      I don’t get it, no-name. Why do people who take public transport expect that other people should not talk on that public transport? I have no problem with people talking. I have no problem with people using phones. They don’t annoy me and if they do, it’s an irritation on a par with that itchy sensation I get under the chin when I haven’t shaved in a few days.

      My attitude is that if you want some peace and quiet you can have that, at home or in the car! What is narcissistic is for people to blow a mobile phone call out of all proportion. Something socially wierd is going on here – it’s the mass acceptance of irrational irritation. Bizzare …

  6. cormac Says:

    I think the danger of intereference is a real issue, and I see no reason to doubt the specialists on this.
    However, there is a second issue: an airplane is a confined space not much larger than a coach, with typically much longer journey times. Listening to a neighbour on the phone in those conditions could be seriously iritating after a while.
    Here in MA, I was not allowed use my mobile phone on a recent coach journey to New hampshire – they introduced this rule a while ago and it has been very popular!

  7. anna notaro Says:

    I suppose with mobile phones, as with any other communication devices it’s a matter of applying sensible etiquette and common sense, as for wireless internet on planes, to refer to the post, it might be wise not to be ‘always connected’ at least when up in the air and let the spirit be lifted by something else, the risk is that work related matters will fill any interstice of our lives..

  8. no-name Says:

    jfryar — you write “My attitude is that if you want some peace and quiet you can have that, at home or in the car!”

    I think you’ve answered your own question here — you rightly point out that mobile phone users disturb the peace and quiet of other people.

    In Germany, we have “quiet carriages” on many trains and these are very popular. Irish Rail tell me that that they are experimenting with this idea on the Dublin-Cork route.

    • jfryar Says:

      I have no problem with quiet carriages. They exist on the trains in the UK, although how successful they are is a different story in my experience.

      Public transport is intrinisically noisy. There’s the sound of wheels across joins in the track or on the road, engines, announcements, etc. But what people get annoyed by is phones? That doesn’t seem rational to me.

      I’m not arguing that mobile phones aren’t annoying to some people. What I’m suggesting is that the level of annoyance is disproportionate to the stimulus in many cases. People who get disproportionately annoyed by something trivial are generally percieved as having a problem. Road rage is the example I used before – irrational, over-the-top reactions to minor traffic infringements. I see no difference between road rage and irritation caused by mobile phones other than the fact that one is considered unacceptable.

      The problem, in my opinion, isn’t the phones. The annoyance is a symptom of people who are overly stressed, irritable, and probably tired. These are not reasons for banning something, they’re reasons to examine why large numbers of people in our society are stressed, irritable, and tired.

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