FCC Asks FAA to Allow Cell Phones On Flights, Unless You Have An Analog Phone


Most of us have had this moment.

You're holding Z and Q when a friend plays a word right between the empty Triple Letter and Triple Word tiles, or Fat Pebble has finally gotten big enough to squash a Ground Mouth on Mount Gobble. As you plan your next critical move, your excitement is rudely interrupted by the speaker over your seat, "In preparation for take-off, please turn all electronics to the off position and make sure they are properly stowed."

They've already confiscated your favorite stick of anti-perspirant and your jar of grandma's mouth-watering peach preserves, and now this. For fear of being regarded by fellow passengers as a scofflaw, or getting cuffed and escorted off the plane by the U.S. Marshall seated somewhere behind you, you obediently shut down your mini tablet and slip it into your carry-on. Then you wonder, what's the big deal?

It's a good question. Plenty of us have landed, patiently waited for the plane to roll up to the jetway, the doors to open, and taken out our phones to call our ride only to discover the phone was unintentionally left on for the entire flight. And not in airplane mode - there are 3 missed calls - the horror! At this point the plane is safely on the ground so everything's OK, right? As we depart, we never do mention our little secret to the flight crew smiling at the exit. Do they know it's us, the stray radio bits coming from the plane were from our phone - allegedly? They can't prove it. Buh bye.

In the brief history of cellular phones there was an even more brief period at first, when they transmitted and received unencrypted analog signals. Each phone was essentially a tiny little radio station, so the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had to step in to ensure each service provider followed the rules and stuck to the 300 or so channels they were allocated in any particular market. Each conversation had to have its own dedicated channel, so it was hard to manage. For several reasons I'll kindly skip, analog crosstalk from an airplane passing overhead would make an even bigger mess of this system, known as the now-extinct 1G network. So, the FCC asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ban cell phone use on airplanes. That worked. Fast forward to today when all cell phones are digital, since the last analog cell phone network was deactivated and dismantled in 2008. Digital networks eliminate crosstalk by design - thanks to more techie mumbo jumbo from which you'll also be mercifully spared. The FCC is no longer the reason you can't use your cell phone during flight. Engineers solved the analog problem.

In the meanwhile, the FAA instituted a rule to ban all electronics during take-off and landing, the two most dangerous phases of any flight. Although there has never been any evidence found of aircraft malfunction from electromagnetic interference (EMI) from a consumer electronic device compliant with Part 15 of the FCC code governing EMI emissions, there is no proof that it's NOT dangerous either. Theory says it could happen, but many hypothetical events could happen that don't. The FAA was just erring on the side of caution, and people were already abiding by the ban on in-flight analog cell phone use anyway.

Commercial airliners have avionics systems with very similar, if not the same, packaged electronics you'd find on board aircraft employed by our armed forces. Safety-critical electronics are always shielded against outside EMI that may cause unintended operation. The military has to design for threats that would actively intrude or disrupt - enemies sometimes want to crash your plane, or to get access to information they are not supposed to have. It is safe to assume that, even if you were some bizarro McGyver and really tried, your Kindle cannot cause a landing gear actuator to fail and your iPhone can't hack into the airline database to get the personal information of the hottie flight attendant who won't give you her number. If terrorists could use a cell phone to sabotage an airliner, they would have already done it. By some estimates, millions of people have left their phones powered on for a whole flight - allegedly - without incident.

As analog phones evolved into digital, and digital phones evolved into the do-all devices we know today, maybe it was hard to single out just the analog phone users. To tell them that they alone were not allowed to imbibe electronic data onboard might cause trouble. Maybe, when the aircraft door is sealed shut, it's just easier to apply a rule uniformly to everybody.

Did you know that today, while you are stowing away your iPad for take-off, the same iPad is very likely powered up and being used during take-off and landing up on the flight deck? The FAA allows this of course, and was recently asked by the FCC to lift its total ban on electronics during take-off and landing. In a letter to acting FAA head Michael Huerta from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Huerta was urged to reconsider the ban in light of the economic growth and competitiveness these devices have enabled. Rumor has it that the FAA is revisiting the ban, and considering that keeping people off their devices, even for a few minutes, could be hurting U.S. businesses.

Just think - someday soon you'll be able to keep playing that once-in-a-lifetime game of Words with Friends or Clay Jam. At the same time, in first class, a director of sales will receive a critical order that propels his company to success, an order that could have gone to his foreign competitor had the call gone right to voice mail. Who knows, it's a hypothetical long shot, but why not remove the ban and err on the side of caution?