It’s a request passengers hear every day at the beginning of thousands of flights around the world: “Please put your portable electronic devices, including mobile phones, on airplane mode.”
Most people do, even if they’re not 100% sure why.
But not everyone. In a Twitter poll this week, three-quarters of Telegraph Travel’s followers said they had turned on Airplane Mode when asked, leaving a quarter who said they didn’t. This sparked anger, with one user asking: “Do those who voted ‘no’ really realize it’s for their own safety? Stunning.”
Such debates may soon be a thing of the past, however, as the EU recently announced that airlines could soon provide passengers with 5G.
The ruling threatens to put an end to the relatively blissful, phone-free aesthetic of the aircraft cabin; 5G access would enable in-flight phone calls, messaging and video streaming.
It has also raised questions about why, if it is now considered safe, we are being prevented from using mobile phones for so long. Can a cell phone really shoot down a jet?
The flight mode rule seems to be an overcaution in part. Patrick Smith, American pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, said: “Can cellular communications really disrupt cockpit equipment? The answer is potentially yes, but most likely no, with airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) simply erring on the side of better safety than regret.
“Aircraft electronics are designed and shielded with interference in mind. This should mitigate any negative effects, and so far there are no proven cases of a phone negatively affecting the outcome of a flight. But you never know.”
He added that more risky devices, such as laptops, become “fast projectiles when suddenly slowed down or hit.”
A mobile phone can interfere not only when it is in use, but also when it is asleep, so cabin crew asks passengers to use airplane mode.
Smith estimated that despite an explicit request at the start of each flight, “at least half of all phones, whether inadvertently or laziness, remain on during the flight.” However, he added that if mobile phones were such a big problem, the policy would be more actively enforced.
Mobile phone use was cited as a possible factor in the aftermath of one serious aviation accident: the Crossair plane crash in Switzerland in 2000. However, researchers pointed to many other factors and concluded that “there are no signs that the planes had negative impact on aircraft systems. electromagnetic interference (EMI)” from mobile phones.
Even if the use of a mobile phone is not critical to safety, it can irritate the pilot. And while the cockpit should be a place of peace and quiet, it’s not ideal. Discussing the problem, The Points Guy quotes private pilot Nikita Schmidt:
“Your call is likely to annoy a few pilots and air traffic controllers. But most likely not bad enough for them to take action against you, if that’s what you want to know.
“You may have heard that unpleasant sound from your audio system that sometimes occurs when a mobile phone is nearby. The phone’s radio emissions can be very strong, up to 8W; they cause this noise due to parasitic demodulation. I actually heard this noise on the radio during the flight. It’s not security critical, but it’s definitely annoying.
“Of course there is a lot of attenuation between the telephones in the cabin and the pilots’ radio. However, if let’s say the 50 people on board are so imprudent that they don’t bother to turn off their cellular radios, there will be 50 phones constantly searching for cellular masts at maximum power. That’s a lot of radio pollution.
“When in-flight cellular service is provided, there is a cellular station right next to these phones. They communicate at very low power, causing no interference. The Wi-Fi signal is much weaker (100mW) than GSM at its peak and I’ve never heard of it causing any problems.”
Thus, in the current system, telephones can interfere with the flight crew, but only to a minor, if annoying, degree. And when airlines offer in-flight 5G, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Nevertheless, as Smith points out, they will have social implications.
“Once it’s proven beyond a reasonable doubt that phones are safe, a percentage of flyers will claim the right to use them, pitting one angry group of travelers against another, with carriers stuck in the middle,” he said.
“The cabin of an airplane is the last refuge of relative silence. Let it be”. We are inclined to agree.