Great Snakes! Phones on a Plane a Tiny Bit Closer

Carl Weinschenk
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Five Defensive Actions to Take Before Your Mobile Device Is Stolen

Coordinating technology, lawmaking/rulemaking and marketing never was easy. A good example of the discontinuity between the three is the age-old - or at least seemingly so - issue of the use of cell phones and other gadgets on airplanes.

While the real dangers of cellular devices on airplanes has been viewed with skepticism for years, the government has not taken any steps to roll back the rules. Slowly, however, that may be changing.

For one thing, Virgin Atlantic is starting to offer cell phone services on planes, including some that are originating and terminating in New York City. (Technically, the InformationWeek story doesn't say if the route goes to Newark International Airport, which is across the Hudson River in New Jersey.) However, the service will be turned off 250 miles from U.S. airspace. The company will expand the service to 10 routes by year's end, according to the story.

Virgin is playing it safe. The story offers a good explanation of how it is engineering the offering:

By creating a cellular network within the plane, it means cellphones will operate at the low end of their power range because of the proximity of the cell. In other words, it is safe to operate and use the service. Typically, cellphones that are switched on during flight ramp up their radio output trying to reach the ground-based cellular networks. This is what may interfere with cockpit instrumentation.

A major airline serving planes going to and from the U.S. would seem to set the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration (FCC and FAA) to take the final step and strike down the rules.

A baby step may be in the offing. The New York Times reported in March that the FAA is considering loosening the rules on non-cell phone devices such as Kindles.

The sense of the story is a good news/bad news affair: It would seem that allowing such devices to be operated moves the needle closer to cell phone approval. The bad news - for proponents of cells on planes, at least - is the laborious path to approval. As the rules currently are set, every device - and every update of each - must be tested on every type of plane on a separate test flight with no passengers on board. This would have to be done by every airline. Clearly, the rules won't change until those procedures are streamlined.

The core question remains, however: Do electronic devices threaten avionics? The answer, at least according to this video from the organization inFact, is that cell phones pose no credible threat to safety, according to host Brian Dunning. While he well may be right, his argument and explanation of why the government is delaying both are superficial.

One thing that Dunning says is incontrovertible: People who are against allowing cell phones on planes because they are annoying - not dangerous - have a reasonable rationale. In fact, there may be people who would rather see snakes than phones on a plane.

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