Mobiles On Planes Might Not Be Unsafe, But So What?
By Carlo Longino, Wed Apr 21 20:30:00 GMT 2004

It's pretty obvious that mobile phones don't pose much risk to commercial airplanes, and at least one group is working on technology to enable them in flight. But just because it's possible doesn't mean it's a good idea.


WirelessCabin is a European Commission-funded effort to bring wireless access to commercial flights. It operates a picocell inside a plane, which then connects to the Internet or public telephone network via satellite. The picocell, in addition to offering Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, would also be a cellular base station that would force mobiles to connect to it and transmit at very low power, circumventing the real problem of phones in flight -- they connect to multiple base stations and cause network problems.

I'm all for anything that brings real data connectivity to commercial flights. Coincidentally, Boeing's Connexion system launches shortly and is in the news today, and it's going to be a big success, particularly on long-haul flights. But is letting people jabber on their phones during flights such a good idea? Air travel is unpleasant enough as it is without having to deal with annoying half-conversations. I spent a good majority of my last flight home from Europe with a narcoleptic teenager asleep in all his seat and half of mine. I can only imagine how much worse a mood I'd been in if the guy across the aisle was on his phone the whole time.

Guy Kewney rightly calls time on the safety argument, and rightly so. Perpetuating that myth doesn't help anybody. But it helps out carriers, and airlines don't mind, either -- it's what lets them charge $38 a minute or whatever the going airphone rate is.

But the fact of the matter is, for me, anyhow, that letting people talk on planes isn't a good idea. Not because it's not safe, but because it's annoying. People (at least in the US) don't generally have much of a sense of courtesy when it comes to using their phones, and don't get us started on the Nextel PTTers. Some trains have "quiet cars" where phone use isn't permitted, but that's not really viable on airplanes -- just like smoking rows were still bad for the whole plane.

I tend to spend most of my travel money on one airline because of their frequent-flyer program. While I shop for the lowest-price tickets, like a lot of people, I'm willing to pay a little more to fly on that airline because of the benefits. I'd certainly pay a little more to fly on an airline that banned voice calls in flight, and I doubt I'm the only one. This is clearly a case when justifying something "because we can do it" simply isn't good enough.