The Not-So-Quiet Skies

I m really not looking forward to the day when airline passengers will be able to use their cell phones while flying to that next business meeting or to some far off destination for a short vacation. Heretofore, the flights I have taken were reasonably quiet except for occasional whimpers from a couple of kids two or three rows away from me. Other than some muted conversations among passengers in adjacent seats, most flights allowed me to comfortably read a book or write a report or take a brief nap.

But if the communications companies and the airlines have their way, the cabin soon will be filled with literally hundreds of phone conversations as we fly across the noisy skies. Imagine trying to concentrate on writing a business plan for your new venture or preparing a presentation for your next project while submersed in a flood of mostly unintelligible babble. I m sure you ve witnessed the phenomenon that people speaking on cell phones tend to talk rather loudly the decibel level of the audio seems almost proportional to the distance in miles they are away from the person called.

The decision to lift the ban on using cell phones in flight rests with the FCC. According to a recent article in the MIT Technology Review,  Can Cell Phones on Planes be Dangerous?• by Daniel Turner, the agency is studying the possibility that cell phones might interfere with satellite- or tower-based signals. Furthermore, the FAA is concerned that the aircraft's GPS or avionics equipment might be compromised when cell phones are used during flights.

I m sure people have made calls on their cell phones while in flight, particularly given the quantity of cell phones in use today. However, there have been no reports from the airlines or governmental agencies stating that communications or navigation systems were disrupted or adversely affected by cell phone usage on any flight. Quite frankly, the number of calls has to be small because the vast majority of travelers truly abide by the ban.

According to the article, David Carson, a lead engineer at Boeing, asserts that interference might affect certain on-board components such as the public-address system or wireless tire-pressure gauges but not flight-critical systems. True, accurate tire inflation may not be an in-flight concern, but knowing that the tires are properly inflated does qualify as a requirement for a safe landing. It is well to note that earlier studies of potential interference problems have been addressed by better shielding of the aircraft's electronics systems.

To further mitigate interference from cell phones and wireless portable devices, a few companies are looking into developing a pico-cell system within the aircraft. With this technology, all cell phone signals would be collected in the pico cell and then transmitted to satellite- or ground-based networks. The cell phones would be transmitting at low power levels because of the proximity of the pico cell. Lower power transmissions from phones means less interference.

Even if the ban is lifted, I m not about to give up flying it's the only way I can visit readers and customers in their offices and attend the many trade shows that are scattered around the globe. But, one thing is certain. I am purchasing top-of-the line headphones with excellent acoustic noise-canceling performance to drown out the din of unwanted in-flight conversations.

Paul Milo
Editorial Director
[email protected]


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