In-flight Cell Phones, Wireless Toys Still Trying to Connect

In-flight Cell Phones, Wireless Toys Still Trying to Connect

By Deb Smith

In-flight use of personal cell phones has long been a big “no-no” on commercial airlines. For almost two decades passengers have had to either wait until landing to call loved ones or business associates, or give in to the high cost of using a seat-back phone provided by the airline.

But just like your seat assignment, this, too, will probably change. In December, the Federal Communications Commissions announced its unanimous decision to review a ban on the in-flight use of off-the-shelf cellular handsets, along with other wireless transmission devices, citing an interest in new low-power technologies.

The move has business travelers and mobile technology developers lining up for a piece of the potential digital action. But industry experts say the decision to put cell phones aloft could drag on for years as the thought of unleashing the ubiquitous power of air-to-ground communication doesn’t exactly have everyone dancing in the aisles—-particularly passengers who view air travel as the last bastion of peace and quiet.

“We already have people talking on cell phones in the car, in the store, on the slopes, and in restaurants while they eat…if this goes through, there won’t be any way to escape living out the icky details of someone else’s meaningless conversation,” said frequent business flyer Leticia Jackson, 47, of Denver. “No, I certainly don’t relish this thought at all.”

And Jackson’s not alone. Blog sites, message boards, and other Internet chatter tools echo similar ideas.

“Myself, being an airline employee, I think that it will be a major mistake to allow phone usage on a plane,” said a recent blogger on USA Today’s Travel Talk site ( “Believe me, some people don’t know what to do in case of an emergency and will use the phone to try to find out, when all they had to do was really put the phone down and listen to the safety announcement…God help us all if this passes.”

Even FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps seemed to have mixed feelings. “On one hand, I’m glad that we are exploring whether (wireless) technology has evolved so the technical limitations that led us to establish this interference rule are no longer necessary,” said Copps in a statement issued by the commission. “On the other side of the scale, many airline passengers don’t relish the idea of sitting next to someone yelling into their cell phone for an entire six hour flight. I know I don’t!”

Untangling the technicalities

While it is absolutely mind-boggling to think about the potential chatter level aboard future flights, it’s even more mind-numbing to comprehend the regulatory process that must precede a ruling of any kind.

Remember, the biggest complication here stems from the fact that there are two large government agencies involved. And if that’s not scary enough, consider the fact that both have very different reasons for imposing similar restrictions.

The FCC is concerned that some portable electronic devices such as cell phones and BlackBerrys, which intentionally emit a radio signal, may interfere with ground communication, especially in smaller rural areas where bandwidth is limited.

On the other hand, the Federal Aviation Administration is more occupied with flight safety. Their major issue seems to be the growing assortment of electronic toys embraced by the traveling public and their potential to interfere with the aircraft’s navigation and other vital instrumentation.

Unlike your cell phone, when you’re in your car or at the office, in-flight phones are classified as air-ground radiotelephone communication, which is what pilots use to talk with air traffic controllers.

Although critics insist the ban lacks any solid proof to back up such fears, a hearing by the House Subcommittee on Aviation back in 2000 heard a very different side of the story.

Citing information obtained by NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting Systems, a program that allows pilots to anonymously report flight problems, panel members and hearing witnesses were asked to consider the following instances of interference with avionics involving personal electronic devices:

September 1990: A plane traveling from Boston to Youngstown/Warren, Ohio, was advised it was off course and was issued a new heading. The plane’s navigational instruments showed it to be on course. After checking the cabin for portable electronic devices, the lead flight attendant informed the captain that 23 passengers were using AM/FM cassette players and one passenger was using a personal computer. The passengers were asked to turn off the devices and the flight proceeded without further incident.

August 1992: A turbojet aircraft was notified three times by two different control towers that it looked to be off course. All instruments in the cockpit were showing the plane’s position to be correct. Flight attendants searched for portable electronic devices and found a tape machine and a hand-held video game unit in use. The devices were turned off and there were no other navigational discrepancies during the flight.

February 1994: A turboprop aircraft flying government officials from Lake Havasu, Ariz., to Yuma, Ariz., experienced trouble with its navigational radios. Ground control showed that the airplane was off course and gave corrections. However, the plane’s navigation system had been checked earlier in the month and was said to have zero error. After the flight, the pilot learned that at least one passenger was using a cellular phone while the plane was in the air.

April 1994: Shortly after takeoff from Baltimore, an aircraft was advised by ground control that it was 10 miles off course, though the plane’s instruments indicated nothing abnormal. It was found that a passenger in first class was using a portable computer. After the computer was turned off, navigation instruments returned to normal.

May 1995: The electric compass indicators of the first officer of a Boeing 737 gave erratic readings. After a sweep of the cabin was made for portable electronic devices, which resulted in flight attendants asking a passenger to turn off a compact disc player, the first officer’s instruments returned to normal working order.

August 1995: An aircraft making its approach to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston was advised that it was four miles off course. Because the course director indicators had been scalloping left and right of center, the captain ordered the flight attendant to check the cabin for any passengers using a portable electronic device. Within 15 seconds, problems with the course director indicators disappeared. The captain later learned that a passenger had been using a portable computer.

January 1997: A regional jet was flying from Salt Lake City to Eugene, Ore. The flight crew received three separate warning messages stating that there were disagreements between the captain’s and the first officer’s instruments. The three warnings were for discrepancies in heading, airspeed and altitude indicators. After flight attendants checked the cabin for passengers using portable electronic devices and had the devices turned off, all problems ceased.

March 1997: A Cessna 340/A pilot experienced erroneous readings when attempting to determine his location because of a passenger using a cellular phone. After the passenger turned off the phone, the pilot was able to locate his position and continue on with no problems.

October 1998: A Boeing 757, flying from Seattle to Covington/Cincinnati, experienced loss of all three of its autopilot systems. Flight attendants checked for a passenger using a portable electronic device and discovered a man wearing headphones, which were part of a hearing aid. The passenger was allowed to continue using the device, but was moved forward several rows. The autopilot system then regained full operational capabilities and was later checked by maintenance, with no problems being found.

And there are more recent instances posted on the ASRS website.

Interestingly enough, reports collected by the International Air Transport Association and presented at this hearing seemed to point to laptop computers—not cell phones—-as the most frequent potential source of interference, estimated to be the guilty suspect in about 68 percent of documented cases. Go figure.

What about the studies?

Of course there have been—and will continue to be—studies on the airborne cell phone issue. In fact, several studies have already been conducted, and with some of the most stunningly inconclusive results.

The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics conducted three of the earliest studies on the issue. The first study was conducted in 1963, after there had been several reports of interference to aircraft electronic equipment from “passenger operated electronic devices.” The study recommended that personal electronic devices that radiate radio frequency energy in excess of a certain level be prohibited aboard aircraft.

The second study was conducted between 1983 and 1988, at the request of the airlines. According to hearing documents, the RTCA’s investigation found that “data developed demonstrated that it is possible, although improbable, for certain passenger-operated electronic devices to interfere with aircraft communications and radio-navigation systems.”

The second study did qualify its findings by noting “the vulnerability of aircraft radio-navigation and communication systems may be greatest during the approach, landing and take-off phases of flight because the aircraft is closer to numerous interference sources such as industrial heaters, cable TV networks, and FM broadcast stations.

A third study was conducted between 1992 and 1996, at the request of the FAA and the House Appropriations Committee. It concluded the “probability of interference to installed aircraft systems from personal electronic devices, singly or in multiples, is low at this time.”

But once again, the study was qualified with concern for vulnerability during critical phases of flight (take off and landing). The RTCA eventually recommended that PEDs be turned off during those phases of flight and that use during that time period “should be viewed as potentially hazardous and an unacceptable risk for aircraft involved in passenger carrying operations.”

The British have conducted studies as well. The Civil Aviation Authority, the United Kingdom’s aviation regulatory board, conducted engineering studies on two different Boeing aircraft at London Gatwick Airport.

The study, conducted in February 2000, measured the strength of a simulated cell phone transmission in various parts of the fuselage. The findings indicate that emissions from phones could theoretically exceed the susceptibility levels of aircraft, particularly in avionics certified to pre-1984 standards.

At the time, the CAA recommended continued prohibition of the use of cell phones and other transmitting devices on commercial airlines. It also recommended development of an on-board system that could detect cell phone use. A bit too Orwellian? Perhaps.

But aircraft manufacturers are puzzled by the problems as well, many going to great lengths to try to reproduce and isolate such instances. Boeing even went as far as buying a passenger’s laptop suspected of causing interference on a London to Paris flight. They then attempted to replicate the problem by flying the same laptop on the same flight, moving about in the cabin to varying locations, but admit they were unsuccessful.

“We Have the Technology”

In December, the Federal Communications Commissions announced its unanimous decision to review a ban on the in-flight use of off-the-shelf cellular handsets, along with other wireless transmission devices, citing an interest in new low-power technologies.

In December, the Federal Communications Commissions announced its unanimous decision to review a ban on the in-flight use of off-the-shelf cellular handsets, along with other wireless transmission devices, citing an interest in new low-power technologies.

Proponents see the FCC’s reevaluation of the ban on in-flight communication toys as a way to not only give passengers additional means of staying in touch, but to add a much needed kick in the pants to boost sagging airline revenues.

Although cell phones were not included, other wireless toys got a reprieve in December when the FCC adopted a flexible approach for licensing the 4MHz of spectrum in the 800-MHz band currently dedicated to commercial air-ground service.

“The prospect of high-speed Internet services in the airplane cabin should be met with great support,” said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. “As we jet off to our latest destination, we’ll have an interest in downloading or uploading a presentation on the way to a conference, catching up on personal and corporate e-mail accounts for a couple of hours, or maybe even doing some online shopping for a child’s upcoming birthday. And with today’s’ decision, we take an important step towards promoting terrestrial-bases broadband services for domestic air travel.”

The new ruling (WT Docket No. 03-103) comes as music to the ears of airlines seeking to hold on to business travelers, who have been anxiously awaiting new-generation technology that can keep customers adequately connected to their terrestrial counterparts. And wireless developers like Connexion, Qualcomm and AirCell have been working on such air-to-ground solutions for more than a year.

Connexion, a business unit of Boeing, and Lufthansa made air-to-ground history on May 17, 2004, when flight LH 452 from Munich to Los Angeles gave passengers the opportunity to be the first in the world to experience WiFi-based, high-speed Internet connectivity on a commercial flight route. Initial testing by Connexion netted successful results as far back as January 2004.

The successful launch was confirmed by e-mail at 3:18 a.m. Pacific time when David Friedman, vice president of marketing and direct sales, sent the following message to his team on the ground: “Hello from 33,000 feet above Germany. The system is on and everything is A-OK. Lots of buzz on board, as this is the start of a new era of communications and aviation history.”

Industry experts suggest high-speed Internet services could be available on most domestic flights as early as 2006. In July 2004, QUALCOMM, a world leader in Code Division Multiple Access digital wireless technology, partnered with Dallas-based American Airlines for a successful test of in-cabin voice communication using consumer-grade, commercially available mobile phone technology.

Through the use of a “pico-cell” (small cellular base station) network located inside the aircraft cabin and connected to the worldwide terrestrial phone network by an air-to-ground satellite link, passengers on the plane were able to place and receive phone calls as if they were on the ground.

“We are pleased to have worked so closely with American Airlines to complete this proof-of-concept demonstration for the in-flight use of 3G CDMA technology,” said Dr. Irwin Jacobs, chairman and CEO of QUALCOMM. “Together, we have anticipated the future needs of wireless subscribers in the airline industry and are aggressively driving the delivery of innovative solutions to meet those needs.”

But one Colorado-based company, AirCell, Inc. already has a head start. They’ve already designed and patented a telecommunications technology that will permit passengers to use their personal cell phones while an aircraft is in-flight. So where do we go from here?

FCC and FAA to work together

Public comment on the cell phone issue is still in its early days and will continue for several months—-possibly as long as a year is deemed necessary.

Once this period is complete, the FCC will then be obliged to evaluate the information received. A hearing will follow.

But the commission cautioned that any steps it ultimately takes with respect to the use of cellular and other wireless devices aboard aircraft would be subject to the rules and policies of the FAA and aircraft operators. The commission is coordinating with the FAA to ensure that FCC rules and policies complement the FAA’s efforts and addresses issues unique to wireless service providers, which are subject to the commission’s regulatory jurisdiction.

The FAA has hired a private company to study the cell phone issue, but its report isn’t due until 2006. The airlines will have a say in this as well. Technology may be here, but unless the airlines can make a profit from it, the program, even with FCC and FAA approval, will most likely stay grounded.

Airlines and passengers to work together

Should the FCC, the FAA and the airlines all agree that use of personal cell phones aboard commercial aircraft is something they can live with, the big question will be, “Is it something we can live with?”

With the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association estimating that in the U.S. alone there are more than 174 million cell phone subscribers, there seems to be little room for escape.

Keep in mind, according to the U.S. Census Bureau the entire population of the U.S. is only 295 million. You do the math. But with increased security screening, and more and more cases of air rage, can we all get along in a wireless environment at 35,000 feet? So far, it looks like the odds may be against us.

Of the 152 passenger air rage incidents reported to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, 15 percent were attributed to the prohibition on the use of PEDs. This made prohibited electronic devices the second most likely cause of air rage behind alcohol, at 43 percent, but ahead of smoking in lavatories at nine percent.

The Association of Flight Attendants weighed in on the matter on the same day the FCC announced it would consider lifting its current restrictions, citing its reason for supporting the continued ban on PEDS as safety concerns for the flying public.

“The current generation of electronic devices with wireless transmitters (e.g., cell phones and handheld and laptop computers) produces radio signals that may compromise flight safety by interfering with an aircraft’s communications and navigations systems,” said the AFA in an official statement released in Washington, D.C. “Furthermore, widespread use of these electronic devices in the confined space of an aircraft cabin has the potential to compromise operational safety by increasing misunderstanding and conflicts between passengers and crew.”

Will the end result outweigh the means? Only time—-and temperament-—will tell.

Finally, what about General Aviation?

For the most part, general aviation pilots are well removed from the messy proceedings ahead. Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulation “Aeronautics and Space” Section 91.21 spells out the rules for use of portable electronic devices for general aviation.

“The bottom line is, if you’re operating VFR, below 18,000 feet, and you’re a general aviation pilot, then the decision as to whether or not you use a cell phone on your flight is up to you,” said Mike Fergus, spokesperson for the FAA’s Northwest Mountain Region headquarters. “Now by the same token, if you’ve got people on board—-not for hire of course, just as passengers—-the pilot can insist they turn their (cell phone) off if he feels it may interfere, and they have to do it.”