We all know that it’s forbidden to use a mobile phone that’s not in flight-mode on a plane. And, as every nervous flyer will tell you, at least one person ignores this rule on every flight. But flights rarely go down, and when they do it’s not usually because someone was using their phone. In fact, not one accident has been conclusively attributed to interference from an electronic device.
So what’s going on? Why aren’t we allowed to use mobile phones on planes?
The general assumption is that we are required to switch our phones off or enable flight-mode because their signal can interfere with navigation instruments. But is this true?
Well, yes. Though in all likelihood it won’t happen. Aircraft electronics are designed to be shielded from cellular interference, which means any ill effects are mitigated the vast majority of time. However, it is possible for interference to occur. As such, airlines are imposing a “better safe than sorry” policy.
That’s why the rule isn’t often enforced that seriously. The chance that one person’s phone will cause interference serious enough to jeopardise a plane is incredibly low. However, imagine what would happen if the ban were removed. It would no longer be just one or two gung-ho passengers making calls; instead, almost every passenger would leave their phone on for the duration of the flight.
If 50 people are on board, that’s 50 phones constantly looking for cell towers. And that is a lot of radio pollution. The interference from one mobile phone registers on the pilot’s headset as the standard “dit d-dit d-dit d-dit” sound you may have heard if your phone has ever interfered with your speakers. Annoying. But not safety critical. Whereas the interference from 50 phones would go beyond the annoying and become legitimately dangerous.
This is why air-hosts and air-hostesses typically ignore a single rogue mobile phone user. If a particularly rebellious group of travellers all refused to switch off their phones on the same flight, you’d likely see the flight attendants take the issue far more seriously.
Of course, there are social issues around mobile phone use on planes, too. For one, it makes some flyers nervous. For another, it can be incredibly annoying to be forced to listen to one half of a conversation that has nothing to do with you. There’s no room for a quiet lounge on a plane, and mobile phone use is irritating for those who want to be left undisturbed. Banning mobile phone use across the board safeguards these travellers who, let’s face it, include all of us – unless we want to make a call.
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