More security theater, in the air

Recently I was on yet another flight, trying to get some e-mail done. This time, however, I was answering e-mail offline on my SmartPhone. Of course, the phone was in flight mode so the radio was off. I wouldn't want to "interfere with the aircrafts navigation and communication systems." Needless to say, this was not nearly sufficient for the flight attendant, who proceeded to lecture me on how important it is that all cell phones be turned off lest they "interfere with the aircrafts navigation and communication systems," and presumably cause the plane to crash, sending all of us to a premature, fiery, and particularly violent death.

Curiously, however, a few minutes afterward, while I was listening to music on my WMA player I suddenly heard the tell-tale interference from a GSM cell phone. Turns out the guy next to me had forgotten to turn off his Palm Treo! HORROR! We must surely be heading into a death spiral any second now!

As you may be able to tell from the fact that I am actually alive to write this though, there were no terrorists yacking on their cell phone, thereby causing the plane to crash, on this particular flight. In fact, the mere notion that a device carried by 98% of the people on the flight could cause a plane to crash is ludicrous in the extreme, particularly considering that about 93% of those people are probably incapable of properly turning the device off. Talk about another case of security theater. Even the Transportation Security Administration - national enforcer of security theater - apparently does not consider cell phones a threat since they still allow us to bring them on board aircraft. Maybe this will all stop as soon as someone figures out a way to crack the battery case and use it as a deadly weapon?

At any rate, I decided to check how much trouble this particular flight was really in. I turned on my wireless network and bluetooth on my laptop. I am such a rebel! The funny thing was that the really bright blue light shone the same flight attendant that was worried about cell phones in the face about 6 times and she never seemed to see much of a problem with it. I then proceeded to scan the ether a few times to see who was communicating. I found three different wireless networks, and two bluetoth devices advertising themselves. The bluetooth devices were even advertising their owners names. Maybe I should report Stacey and Tom to the TSA? They must clearly be terrorists, using small, cheap, radio transmitters in a blatant attempt to bring down a commercial airliner!

Cell phones typically operate on frequencies like 800 MHz, 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1.8 GHz, and 1.9 GHz. Both bluetooth and 802.11b (my laptop is old and does not have 802.11a or g) operate on 2.4 GHz. I'm not a radio engineer, and maybe there is something special about the cell phone frequencies that allows them to crash aircraft while the 2.4 GHz hobbyist band does not; but I doubt it. I think the fact that every single flight in the world probably has at least one Stacey or Tom on it, and probably several, recklessly leaving their bluetooth devices turned on is proof positive that there is absolutely zero risk posed to air travel safety by cell phones or any other small radio transmitter. Heck, SAS and Lufthansa, and maybe others too, now offer ridiculously expensive wireless networking on board.

Clearly, this is just another case of security theater, acted out by people refusing to accept the obvious and question their fundamental beliefs about the things they learned years ago, which are so clearly untrue.

Comments (11)

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  1. Alun Jones says:

    I, too, have wondered how it is that planes have safely taken off and landed with cell-phones in luggage and carry-on without having been turned on (I know I’ve unpacked a cell-phone or two and said "oopsie!").

    The most plausible explanation that I’ve come across is that the cell-phone ban has more to do with the commercial realities of running a cell-phone service through which you are travelling at about six times the usual maximum speed, changing cells rather rapidly, and at a sufficiently steep angle that several neighbouring cells all think they’re the closest to you.

    Picture an ice-skater, gliding across the ice, illuminated by spotlights. If you light her from the opposite corner of the rink, she’s lit in profile, which isn’t very flattering. So, you need to track her with several lights, each of which has to turn up or down so that she’s mostly lit by the closest light.

    Now put a jet-pack on the skater, and imagine the complication of trying to cue the right lights up and down in time.

    Another reason I don’t much buy the theory of "cell-phones interfere too much" is that there is a whole heck of a lot of other electrical phenomena going on in the air that would cause havok. Remember those big bright sparky things that make the loud noise during storms?

  2. Blake Handler says:

    The "problem" with using cellphones on an airplane is not about security. A cellphone connects to a "cell" and is handed-off to the next "cell" as the user travels.

    When you are in an airplace — you connect to too many "cells" simultaneously.

  3. Dan Halford says:

    There are some differences between bluetooth / WiFi and cellphone communication; Whilst WiFi has a maximum broadcast strength of 100mW, cellphones can output at a signal strength of up to (from memory) around 4W. Bluetooth, given its very limited range, is probably weaker than WiFi. Whilst this doesn’t change the stupidity of the cellphone ban on planes, it goes some way to explain the dichotomy.

    But it isn’t just the airline industry that have similarly stupid rules. Up until only a couple of years ago, patients and visitors were kindly requested to turn off cellphones when entering hospitals in the UK. Apparently, the signals could affect the sensitive medical equipment. Police band radios, which broadcast at around four times the signal strength of cellphones, were perfectly fine…

  4. We had the same ban in the US actually on radio equipment in the hospital. I did have an incident where a cell phone was claimed to interfere with a in-utero heart rate monitor, but I think there was something else involved.

  5. Tim Morton says:

    Although I must agree that there seems to be highly contradictory evidence, the arguments regarding simultaneous connection to multiple cells, the potential effects of lightning or the effects of stronger signals on certain equipment may run and run. Nevertheless, I support the ban on cell phones in aircraft despite the inconvenience I have occasionally ‘suffered’ when I wanted to play with my smart phone or endeavoured to work in a space less than a fifth of the size I would legally be entitled to in my office.

    The reason for my support of the ban is quite simple: any lifting of the ban would, for egalitarian reasons, have to apply to everyone.

    Consequently, air travel would be instantly plagued by that genre of cell-phone user who invade our consciousness every day with a seemingly constant and superfluous narrative regarding their location, the local weather conditions or alarmingly candid details of their state of health.

    Apparently oblivious of the fundamental function of a cell-phone, the sensitivity of the modern microphone, or the sensibilities of their fellow humans, these cell-boors are commonly to be heard conducting their banal conversations at such a volume to negate the need for a phone at all; merely opening an adjacent window would probably suffice provided that the recipient caller was within the same state.

    In the enforced confine of an aircraft cabin, there are surely quite enough tests of our tolerance of our fellow man/woman without adding another?

    For the technorati, who might actually make legitimate and valuable use of a cell-phone service at 30,000 feet, perhaps in time your call will also be answered. For now, in a world where every minute seems precious, take heart: above the clouds might be one of the few remaining places that you can find any head-room.

    “No HONEY… I’m on a PLANE!… AMAZING, Huh…?”

  6. Ah, Tim, if only it were true that banal boorishness were confined to cell phone yakkers…

    On my flight to Jakarta the other day, shortly after I ensconsed myself into my favorite seat (3C on Northwest’s A330), a woman plunks herself down into 2A and begins blathering at her seatmate in 2B. At *full* volume. Incessantly. About nothing interesting. Nonstop. Vapid conversation, devoid of anything remotely worth eavesdropping on, yet delivered more loudly than the plane’s engines. My seatmate and I commiserate: how long will this last? Seattle to Tokyo is 10 hours, must we endure her the entire trip?

    Eventually, after two relentlessly painful hours, I had had enough. Calmly I approached her and said, "Look, I’m really sorry to be an ass here, but would you please lower your voice? You are all over the cabin, and even *with* earplugs you are just too loud." She, of course, bristled at the mere thought that she might be in the wrong; the 26 other cabin occupants immediately heaved a collective sigh of relief. And to her credit, she did remain quiet for the flight’s duration.

    People who are normally kind and caring seem to morph into the most disgusting instances of humanity the moment they board an airplane. I’m convinced there’s some device installed at the end of every jetway that deactivates the part of the brain that regulates politeness and consideration. Surely it has nothing to do with lousy service, cramped quarters, cranky airline employees, stupid regulations, and inflexible procedures? Nah, never…

  7. Matt says:

    There are two agencies that regulate cellphones in airplanes.

    The first is the FCC. It is illegal to use cellphones from an airplane because it floods the cell towers and they can’t decide which should take the call.

    The second is the FAA. The applicable rule is:

    Sec. 125.204 Portable electronic devices.

    (a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, no person

    may operate, nor may any operator or pilot in command of an aircraft

    allow the operation of, any portable electronic device on any U.S.-

    registered civil aircraft operating under this part.

    (b) Paragraph (a) of this section does not apply to–

    (1) Portable voice recorders;

    (2) Hearing aids;

    (3) Heart pacemakers;

    (4) Electric shavers; or

    (5) Any other portable electronic device that the Part 125

    certificate holder has determined will not cause interference with the

    navigation or communication system of the aircraft on which it is to be


    (c) The determination required by paragraph (b)(5) of this section

    shall be made by that Part 125 certificate holder operating the

    particular device to be used.

    Paragraph (5) basically says that the airline gets final say of what is and isn’t allowed. In particular, the airline would have to demponstrate that your device "will not cause interference with the navigation or communication system of the aircraft on which it is to be used."

    Since the airlines can’t possibly test every device you could bring on board, we have the current policies.

    The FAA has a doc here as well geared to the consumer:

  8. Matt, that’s interesting. So the only reason laptops are allowed is probably the fact that passengers would revolt otherwise, right? There can’t be any way the "Part 125 certificate holder" can have any more assurance about laptops than cell phones.

    Tim, and Steve, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want to talk on the phone on a plane. The ban on *talking* on the cell phone is a great idea, but I fail to see why it must be related to an overall ban on the use of a *smart* phone so that I can play Mahjong on the plane! Oh, and I also would like them to change the announcement on interfering with the air crafts communication and navigation system to this:

    "Welcome on board Northwest Airlines flight 7, with service from Tokyo to the sunny city of Seattle. Please remember to set your mobile phones to ‘flight mode’ and ensure the ringer is set to ‘vibrate,’ where all mobile phones should be locked for all eternity. Any passenger making any undue noise during our journey, including, but not limited to vapid, thoughtless conversation, will have their cell phone confiscated and thrown out a window, and the passenger in question will spend the remainder of the flight in the cargo compartment, together with all the other annoying passengers we collected on the way over here."

  9. D. Taylor says:

    Here is a nice summary of the problem and possible solutions:

    I don’t see a resolution until the airlines can profit from it, however.

  10. Dan Halford says:


    Your last announcement must have been cut short by some cell-phone interfering with the aeroplane’s communications system. The flight steward’s final part of the announcement was to have been:

    "Please note that under FAA regulations, screaming children are now considered offensive weapons. Any person found to possess such an item will also be taken to the cargo hold for the duration of the journey. To ensure the safety and sanity of our passengers,
    the child will be locked in a small sound-proof box located under the fuselage until collected by a parent of legal guardian."

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