Awesome or Annoying? Cellphone Use Could Be Coming to Airplanes


Making calls from your cellphone while you’re cruising at 20,000 feet may soon become as common as making cellphone calls while you’re cruising in your car. The Federal Communications Commission recently proposed a rule change that would overturn a longtime ban on using cellphones on airplanes.

“Today, we circulated a proposal to expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband,” stated FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. “Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.”

The FCC’s announcement comes several weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration determined that passengers could safely use their PEDs (personal electronic devices) in airplane mode during all phases of flight. The FAA made its decision based on a study conducted by the Aviation Rulemaking Committee that concluded “most commercial airplanes can tolerate radio interference signals from PEDs.”

As noted by Brian Fung at the Washington Post, the use of cellphones at high altitudes would require that special equipment be installed on airplanes that would enable cellphone signals to be relayed to the ground. Europe has already implemented an in-flight cellphone system and the European Commission even recently approved the use of 3G and 4G data plans on flights.

Although many flyers may find it annoying to be trapped in an airplane with multiple cellphone users, there appears to be no scientific evidence that mobile devices are interfering with a plane’s electronic systems, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. It should also be noted that many cellular devices are already inadvertently left on during flights. A joint study conducted by the Airline Passenger Experience Association and the Consumer Electronics Association earlier this year determined that 30 percent of passengers that bring a cellular device on an airplane admitted to accidentally leaving their devices on during the flight.

However, the FAA still bans the use of cellphones during takeoff and landing. The FAA noted that, “In some instances of low visibility — about one percent of flights — some landing systems may not be proved PED tolerant, so you may be asked to turn off your device.” This restriction would apply to all electronic devices, not just cellphones.

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