As long as cell phones have been allowed on airplanes, the debate has raged on about whether or not full functionality should be allowed 30,000 feet above the earth. Both sides have presented convincing arguments as to why their side is right, or why telephones should not be allowed in the middle of flight. And when you travel around the world, each of the different policies makes it very unclear how cellular policies are set.
The United States has held a firm line on using cellular technology on airplanes for well over a decade. Only in the past year did the agency relent on using small personal electronics (like smartphones and tablet computers) during all phases of flight. But your experience may vary, depending on where you end up traveling to. This leads to the natural question: how dangerous are cell phones to commercial aircraft?
European Skies: Mobile Data Throughout the Flying Experience
Last year, the European Union completed a study that discovered wireless signals do not necessarily interfere with an aircraft’s navigation system. As a result, the EU ruled that both 3G and 4G data could be accessed at an altitude over 9,000 feet, opening the doors for airlines to allow cell phone use on flights.
The result opened up two different and distinct sets of guidelines, based on regulations. While the European Commission and member states of the EU now allowed data on aircraft, the rules on the implementation would ultimately be set by airlines operating in the European Union and the European Aviation Safety Authority – Europe’s equivalent to the U.S.
Federal Aviation Administration.
In 2013, the EASA cleared the way for European travelers to use their data mid-air throughout the flight. Many EU carriers, with the announcement, allowed for travelers to use the data plans on their phones while traveling within Europe. Many air carriers, including Lufthansa, allow flyers to use data mid-flight, billed against their air carriers.
In September 2014, the EASA released a statement allowing the use of all cellular functionality on personal electronic devices in all phases of flight: takeoff, cruising altitude, and landing. This announcement was the last step in allowing full-flight usage of cellular technology, without having to use “airplane mode.” However, the regulatory authority also stated that it would be up to the individual airlines whether or not they would allow in-flight data usage throughout the flight duration.
Middle-Eastern Airlines: Leaders in Data Usage
Meanwhile, the high luxury airlines that have been flying out of the Middle East, including Etihad and Qatar Airways, have been leaders in providing flyers with cellular access. Both airlines have offered phone calls and data access on their routes since 2012.
On their website, Etihad brags that flyers are allowed to make phone calls and send text messages on select aircraft throughout the duration of the flight – from takeoff to landing. The UAE-based airline is in the process of installing the capability on all of their aircraft, coinciding with their rebranding.
Qatar Airways, however, only allows users to send and receive text messages and mobile Internet while mid-flight. The data process is provided by OnAir, a data provider that bills any costs to your mobile provider for processing on your bill. The service is currently offered on the entire Qatar Airways fleet.
The United States: A Much More Complicated Route
Meanwhile, the United States continues to take a hard line on mobile phone usage while midair. The FAA has routinely deferred decisions about mid-air phone usage to the Federal Communications Commission. While the FAA has authority over commercial aircraft in the United States, authority over wireless communications has always been squarely in the hands of the FCC.
Therefore, while the FAA relented on allowing small electronics to be used throughout all phases of flight while in “Airplane Mode” (disabling data and cellular functions), it is ultimately up to the FCC if cellular data will be allowed at cruising altitude over the United States. Many groups have historically speaking, opposed the pathway for cellular technology to be used.
The Association of Flight Attendants, for example, has continually opposed in-flight cell phone usage. Their concern is that a noisy cabin could create confusion and lead to chaos in an emergency situation. Multiple people on their cell phones could create a more dangerous situation than the phones themselves. Airlines, on the other hand, seem less opposed to allowing cell phone usage on flights – but instead, want to have the final say on their usage. The Department of Transportation is expected to make a final ruling in December of 2014, which would provide final guidance on cell phone usage over the United States.
So are cell phones truly dangerous to aircraft? The evidence shows that the usages of cell phones are not necessarily a danger to the navigation systems of the aircraft, when used in conjunction with specialized services. However, concerns remain that the user could be at risk to themselves. Only time will tell if we’ll see cell phone usage mid-flight over the United States.