The Real Reasons You Are Not Allowed To Use Your Mobile Phone On A Plane During Takeoff

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Should you have to turn off your mobile phone when flying?

In a fascinating article over at mobile industry review, Steve Kennedy explains just how fragile the airwaves we take for granted really are.

As someone who does like to learn about the technology behind mobile communication, though admittedly just likes things to work……I will try to do this article justice in bringing out the salient points.

Reason Why You Are Not Allowed To Use Your Mobile Phone On A Plane During Takeoff
Reason Why You Are Not Allowed To Use Your Mobile Phone On A Plane During Takeoff

I must admit that this topic has been covered in a humorous manner in an earlier article related to Alec Baldwin’s in-flight love of games, and I will be honest and say that I was always under the impression that turning off your mobile phone in-flight was an extreme form of health and safety precaution based on very little evidence so it is nice to put a few myths to bed.

Mobile networks are fragile:

When you were last on a flight do you rememberer being told to:

“please ensure your phone is switched off, as it can interfere with the plane electronics.”

Or something similar. And you are also told to keep your mobile off while you are stationary, taking off, and also when you are landing.

So is all this fuss necessary?

If you think of Mobile Networks as quite simply radio systems, that allow people to tap into them and make and receive calls, then you will not be aware of some of the fineries that surround mobile networks.

The truth is that these systems are very fragile and when you are at an Airport such as Heathrow, on the ground, you may well be in the vicinity of a number of cell sites that mobile networks use to make your phone work, taking and receiving signals.

Now when you turn off your mobile phone, it appears that your device is not actually fully asleep but in more of a soft sleep, and only removing the battery will turn the device off properly.

But mobile phones transmit at very low power:

Mobile phones do transmit at low power, this is a way of saving battery life, they also look for the nearest GSM or 3G cell site, and the reason your phone may lack battery in rural areas when compared to city use is that your device will likely be looking for a cell site much further away which will affect your overall mobile battery life.

Heathrow will have a number of cell sites:

So with Heathrow being such an important area geographically and population wise, the likelihood that it will have a number of cell sites from which networks are transmitting radio waves is obvious. These will be at much greater magnitudes than your humble smartphone will ever deliver so why do plane operators make such a fuss when their planes are already getting bombarded by an onslaught of many, many radio waves from close proximity?

Cell handover is the issue in the UK:

Yes it seems that it has less to do with safety and more to do with money!

Cell handover in the UK is explained by taking an example of a stationary plane at Heathrow and having this plane head south.

While it is rising in the air, it will be hit by a high number of neighbouring cell sites from the general London area around Heathrow, so how do the cell sites know when to switch as you move between so many options?

By using technology known as handover the algorithms work out which cells to hand-off to and thus optimise the network efficiency, otherwise it would be constantly trying to look for your signal and this would cost the mobile operators and networks lots of money, and potentially result in dropped calls and general extra work at the cell sites.

Let us take being in the air while ascending again, imagine this as another 3D layer that is much more difficult to predict, so there could be an argument that this is the reason that plane operators do not allow you to use your phones while taking off and landing, as it could end up costing a lot of cash and cause users below to lose calls due to dropped signals and general degradation in call quality, as so many phones fight for signals that are constantly altering due to flying above so many cell sites.

With no actual tests ever been done on the issues of using your mobile while flying, and the FCC in the US only warning that the above issues could present problems, (and then apparently withdrawing this advice for some unknown reason), it would still appear that the real dangers of flying with your mobile turned on is still not known. And may as many suspect may actually be more of a myth.

So the above reasons would appear to be quite a valid argument for not affecting those below on descent and take off, as in some cases your mobile connection could not only be a paid for service that you expect to work, but also a lifesaver too.

I am personally unsure how all this would interfere with emergency service networks, though I suspect that they have more robust dedicated signals that would not be interfered with in the same manner.

In plane Wi-Fi coming soon:

Strangely this may all start to become a lot more clear as it seems that your average plane could be able to sell mobile minutes to you as well as the usual Wi-Fi which you can now obtain, so it does appear that it is more about money at the bottom line in both cases.

Though they will still not allow you to use your mobile phone during take off and landing so you do not affect the ground based cell sites as we covered above.

I must say a big thank you to mobile industry review and a guest poster called Steve Kennedy who has added a really interesting post about the dangers of having your mobile phone turned on while flying.

Anthony Munns