Saturday, January 5, 2008

Turn It Off

Pilot Patrick Smith of Salon.com’s “Ask the Pilot” answers the age-old question:

Can cellular communications really interfere with cockpit equipment?

The answer is potentially yes, but probably not. You want something meatier than that, I know, but that’s about as accurate an answer as exists. Although cellular phones are unlikely to screw anything up, regulators are erring on the better-safe-than-sorry side.

Cockpit hardware and software use radio transmissions for a number of tasks. Whether transmitting, receiving or simply sitting idle, cellphones are able to garble these signals. As you might expect, aircraft electronics are designed and shielded with this interference in mind. This should mitigate any ill effects, and to date there are no proven cases where a cellphone has adversely affected the outcome of a flight. But you never know, and in some situations — for instance, in the presence of old or faulty shielding — it’s possible that a telephone could bring about some sort of anomaly.

Notice that I say “anomaly” and not “flaming wreckage.” You imagine some hapless passenger hitting the send button when suddenly the airplane explodes, flips over or nose-dives into the ground. In reality, should it occur, interference is liable to be subtle, transient and, in the end, harmless. People have a hard time grasping that every in-flight problem is not an impending catastrophe, and this is no exception. The electronic architecture of a modern jetliner is vast, to say the least, and most irregularities aren’t exactly heart-stoppers — a warning flag that flickers for a moment and then goes away, a course line that briefly goes askew. Or something unseen. I’m occasionally asked if I have ever personally witnessed cellular interference in a cockpit. Not to my knowledge, but I can’t say for sure. Planes are large and complicated; minor, temporary malfunctions of this or that component aren’t uncommon. Nine times in 10, what brought about that fleeting glitch is never known.

So why take the chance? There’s another reason why cell phones ought to be turned off while the plane is is flight: it’s the last refuge for those of us who like get away from the people who think that they must talk very loudly — and occasionally graphically — about their most intimate life encounters while talking on a cell phone. I have heard people declaim at full volume things that they wouldn’t tell their priest while they were sitting in an airport departure lounge, and once, while waiting for takeoff from DFW, the guy sitting next to me was telling a friend how a sales meeting went and he said, quoting here, “they rolled over like a whore in heat.”

Alas, this cone of silence at 35,000 feet may be coming to an end.

Currently under trial is an onboard communications system that is able to collect and retransmit cellular signals by way of a laptop-size server and a series of small base stations, called “picocells,” spaced throughout the passenger cabin. Weighing about 20 pounds, a picocell automatically commands your phone to operate at greatly reduced power. Calls are then routed to ground stations one of two ways — via satellite, or directly using special towers and a dedicated frequency band. This should eliminate both the cockpit interference hazard and the tower-to-tower signal bouncing that, for the time being, make high-altitude calling impossible.

Heaven help us. Perhaps we can have “chattering” and “non-chattering” sections, akin to the old smoking and nonsmoking.