When my plane was about to take off, I heard, as usual, the announcement, “For your own safety and that of other passengers, please shut down your electronic devices or set them to ‘airplane mode’ during the flight.”
Passengers were further reminded by the crew before takeoff. But in fact it’s difficult for the crew to verify if those devices placed in people’s pockets, on the table or handheld with the screen going out, are indeed shut down, or already switched to airplane mode. According to my past experiences of air travel, I’ve also noticed that quite a few passengers sitting next to me didn’t actually comply with this rule. More than once I urged them to abide.
Airlines have this rule in place because phones and tablets can send out and receive electronic signals strong enough to reach long distances, and connect with base stations on the ground that the planes fly over. Theoretically the devices may interfere with an aircraft’s sensitive and precision electronic control system including navigation and communication, by emitting electromagnetic waves within the same frequency band, thereby posing danger to flight safety. The airplane mode disables the devices from sending out signals.
In response to the strong desire by passengers to use their gadgets aboard, the Civil Aviation Administration of China issued a consultation notice on Jan. 15, 2018. It states “the conditions have basically become ripe to allow for portable electronic devices (PEDs) use,” citing that the international organization Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics has reviewed the aviation industry’s technical standards in resisting PED electromagnetic interference. Aircraft makers like Airbus and Boeing have implemented technological advances to prevent such interference.
A later order by the Ministry of Transport published in November 2018 allows individual airlines to make their own decisions on this issue.
In the EU, PEDs have been allowed to be used since 2014. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has required since the early 1990s that a PED has to be set in airplane mode on a flight. In 1992, the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority and Boeing investigated PED uses and found no signal interference ever happened during takeoff and landing, the most insecure moments during a flight. The FCC also began to create reserved frequency bandwidths for different uses like cell phone and aircraft navigation and communication so that they would not interfere with one another.
My research also found no record of any air accident, a fewer than one 10-millionth rarity in about 100 million flights a year, being triggered by passengers using PEDs.
That fact further reinforces the belief that using PEDs on planes is safe, leading to more people ignoring the rule.
If it’s unsafe not using the devices in airplane mode, the rule must be enforced. Or if it’s safe to use a device that is not in airplane mode, it’s time to change the rule.
The seriousness of rules shall be maintained. If incompliance with a rule doesn’t come with consequences, and many people ignore it, then the rule itself becomes a problem that needs be solved.
Advances in technology have made it possible to equip aircrafts with in-flight Wi-Fi, which allows connectivity to the internet even onboard a flight. It’s satellite-based and doesn’t use the ground base stations. It costs a little extra, but safety should always come first.
(The author is a business executive.)