Can current cell phone technology keep a plane from crashing?

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Answered by: Nick, An Expert in the Air Travel - Security and Safety Category
Many people do not realize that cell phones pose no risk to airliners when used in flight. Due to strict FAA regulations surrounding the use of electronic devices in flight, many people are still under the false impression that the phone usage actually affects the aircraft itself. Most air carriers allow passengers to leave their cell phones on during flight just as many others allow usage during taxi and boarding or deplaning. This was not always the case as many people can remember. Cell phone technology has changed over the past two decades and so have the usage rules surrounding it.

When cell phones represented the leading edge of communications technology (think 1980’s “brick phones”) the FAA and aviation industry officials had no real way of knowing whether or not they this new technology was even capable of affecting aircraft systems like navigation equipment and radio signals. Very little effort was put into testing the effects of cell phone usage in flight due to the fact that the FAA had already banned their use in the air in 1987. Over the years, many people have theorized that cell phones have contributed to at least a handful of plane crashes worldwide. However, not one crash can be traced to cell phone usage or interference with the radios or other onboard equipment. Interestingly, one of the biggest proponents of the nation-wide in-air cell phone ban was the cell companies themselves.

Before cell phone technology had progressed much past the 1990’s, many phones were designed to use up a certain amount of bandwidth on a specific channel or frequency. This is before the days of texting, smart phones, and the like. These frequencies were controlled by satellites and later by cellular towers which can presently be found populating many parking lots and fields around the nation. Before 2006, these towers would base their bandwidth assignments on the cellular phone activity that was closest and that represented the strongest possible signal. This meant that signals coming from above or in the air, even a few hundred feet higher than the vast majority of other signals, would secure the lion’s share of bandwidth. This would effectively rob most other cell phones below and in the immediate area of any service.

Current cell phone technology does not allow for this type of bandwidth monopoly over land-based cell phone signals. But this wasn’t always the case, and as cell phone companies began to adopt new technology, their priorities changed relative to backing the in-air cell phone ban. So the cell phone ban during air travel started as a potential safety issue was really masked by cell phone companies not wanting to compromise service for those customers not fortunate enough to be enjoying a ride in the sky.

To this day many people still wonder if it is acceptable and safe to use their cell phone in the air. It is completely safe to do so, and the FAA has lifted the ban. Air carriers of all types are now allowing passengers to use their phones reflecting the fact that cell phones never really presented a danger to any flight, their effects on radios and navigation equipment were merely little understood. As technology progressed so did peoples’ understanding of its effects. Cell phones will not cause a plane to crash.

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