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A cell phone aboard an airplane, fantasies and the facts
Those, who often use airplanes, get used to warnings, that it is banned to use electrical devices, such as players, notebooks and mobile phones in particularly during take-offs and landings. The latter are banned to use during all the flight and none of the airlines allows passengers to do it. Passengers react differently on this warning, someone switches off the phone, and someone thinks that it is only a precaution. In this case people make calls during take-offs and landings, they don't pay attention to requests of neighbors or even crewmen. And it is so, despite the fact that all airlines prohibit to use cell phone during the flight. This ban, which was appeared as an extra insurance, is of vitally importance today. We've already known instances in which equipment and navigation equipment, in particular, was affected by a cell phone. At least one air crash was occurred because of a working mobile phone and it is a forcible argument to ban all wireless phones aboard the plane.
Firstly cell phones were banned in 1991 on FCC initiative in USA. The reason was a probable interference of cell phone with the aircraft's communication and navigation systems. But at that time there were no facts that can prove or disprove that statement. The ban could be considered as a private initiative of airlines and telecommunications companies, which didn't want to lose a revenue from the air-phones installed onboard. Look, a one-minute call in the air was much more expensive than a usual cell phone call and, naturally, people used a cheaper service when they had a choice. The situation was regulated in 1991. Ground carriers had no objections. But we should understand that cellular technologies were not widely spread at that time and revenue of carriers was quite sufficient. It wasn't necessary for them to find other sources to get benefit.
However, later, evidences that cell phones interfere with airplane equipment were appeared. Such companies as Delta, United and Continental proclaimed that sometimes mobile phones really interfere with compasses and even cabin pressure. Specialist in equipment negatively took this announcement and in 1996 U.S. Federal Aviation Administration asked nonprofit organization to research this problem. As a result of their study was an article, where the specialists said that cell phones didn't operate on airplane systems. They also confirmed that all the bans shouldn't be repealed because theoretically such interference could take place. Similar tests were made by airplane manufacturers (Boeing Co.and Airbus Industrie) and the results were also negative. The absence of evidences allows many countries not to restrict passengers to use mobile phones onboard.
First alarm was set when cell phones became widely spread and equipment errors became more often but still there were no direct evidences. Till 2000 some of the countries didn't joint to the ban against cell phones but an air crash of the flight number LX 498 Crossair (Saab 340) considerably changed the situation. It was not far from Zurich on the 10. of January 2000. Ten passengers and a whole crew perished in that air crash. For a long time the results of flight recorders decoding were not announced but at last it was a sensation. One of the reasons of the crash was an SMS message, which was received by one of the passengers, and a next cell phone conversation. Navigation monitoring devices showed wrong data at that moment, what led to a crash. Comments of independent experts were not comforting, they said that crew could improve the situation but it also made a mistake and crash was inevitable. Everybody agreed that an airplane fortune depended on crew actions and crew professionalism after electrical systems stopped working. Those countries which hadn't joint to the ban before, hurried on to do it. After that this air crash was forgotten.
Law and its realization
Severe laws don't mean that they are carefully observed. It is the opinion of many people not only in Russia but in other countries too. In spite of warnings and earnest requests many passengers continue to use cell phones during the flights. There are many examples that can prove this statement. I remember one incident, which happened not long ago. Still before the flight one young man (he sat in a near by chair) tried to quite himself by playing a game on the phone. It was vain to ask him to switch it off, an attempt of a stewardess was even comical. She looked at the man and said: Leave him alone, he isn't calling up, he is just playing a game, it's not banned. I had to explain that a turned on phone worked anyway. It was something new for her, nobody told her about it before. I don't want to mention here an airline, it is rather large and famous. But such incidents could happen everywhere.
Airlines didn't take this problem seriously till this year. Rule-breakers were only mildly rebuked, rarely phones were seized. First information about punishments we received from the East. One of the passengers was caught in Saudi Arabia, where using of cell phones in the air is also banned. When an aircraft landed in Taubuk, a rule-breaker was immediately convoyed to the court and he received 20 lashes for the crime. A strong measure, isn't it? But the example of Adria Airways was not forgotten. At that time one of the passengers left his turned on phone in his luggage and it interfered with a navigation system while taking-off. Pilots had to make an emergency landing.
Last year Faiz Chopdat (23 years) flew from Luxor (Egypt), where he spent his honey-moon, to Manchester (UK). The young many behaved boldly aboard. He didn't react to the neighbour request to switch off the phone and went on playing. He also didn't pay any attention to the stewardess and turned away from her. However, he turned off the phone for a while, but then turned it on again. This time a pilot tried to persuade him to switch off the phone. But Faiz was a stubborn guy, he continued playing. There were no other warnings, the crew broadcasted information about this incident to a flight dispatcher. After landing Faiz Chopdat was prosecuted that he exposed many people to mortal danger.
Judge (Timorthy Mort) sentenced him to 4 months imprisonment. He also mentioned that he could increase the punishment to 2 years. Timorthy Mort noticed that the threat was so serious that imprisonment was a defensible measure. He added that the example of Faiz should warn people of using cell phones aboard.
Another incident happened with our compatriot. Sergey Lebedev (49 years) - a representative of a Magnitogorsk metallurgical works, was arrested for a refusal to switch off his mobile phone aboard an aircraft of British Airways. According to British side, he was asked more than once to do it by a crew of Boeing-737, which flew from London to Manchester. He imperiled all the aircraft and pilots had to repeat approach. Police arrested Sergey after landing in Manchester. He was in bull-pen before the court in Trafford and sentenced in threatening a passenger aircraft safety and pilots of Boeing-737 insubordination. A court must've been in November but countries regulated this question without it. In case of guilt admitting a passenger could've received two years of imprisonment
The phones onboard could be safe
Some companies decided not to use only bans but also offered an alternative variant to mobile phones - so called air-phones. You can use them if it is necessary. Unfortunately the rate of this service is quite high and that is why it's not very popular.
Another alternative is from AirCell, which showed a new technology. It allows anyone to call being aboard without any threat to interfere with an equipment. The idea is quite simple. Low-powered base, which connect with ground networks by special external antennas, setup aboard. It turns out that it will be something like a local cellular network. Power of the phones is minimal in such conditions because a signal level from base stations is quite sufficient. Moreover, all ground networks signals will be blocked in the air to easy registration in onboard cellular network, which itself will be registered in one of the ground networks and transmit data via it. Here we solve two main problems, concerning mobile phones aboard. First one is the visibility of many cellular networks from the air, usually a phone can't register because the airplane moves quickly between the networks. The second problem is more obvious. At a great height phones have a maximum power or they don't see a cellular network. One of possible limits is a limited number of phones working aboard simultaneously (only 10-15 passengers).
One-minute call will be charged not much: 0.75 - 1.5 USD. This price is compatible to usual roaming rates, part of it will be transferred to airline. Connection will be free. It is a price list of AirCell and it promised to set first experimental systems already in the beginning of 2003.
Verizon Airfone - an owner of the majority of air-phones, is more conservative. In order air-phones don't rival with cell-phones, the company will overcharge a cell phone service. A one-minute call will cost about 3.9 USD and you should also pay for a connection approximately the same money. It's not known about the technical realization of the system from Verizon Airfone. May be it is just a paper project.
New initiative of the companies was taken seriously by FCC. Today Verizon Airfone is a monopolist if to say about air-phones. Nevertheless officials are rather skeptical, they notice that time is needed to reequip all aircrafts if all test experiences are successful. Till now a question of bands is rather controversial in USA. Three bands are equally cover the territory of USA. And it is an additional difficulty to introduce new equipment. Even representatives of airlines, who lose money after cell phone ban, think that these systems will begin to work not earlier than in 2007. It's interesting that a number of calls from the air decreases to one (instead of 4) after a ban law. Let see whether AirCell has a success in realization of the ideas. And for now we advice you to refrain from using mobile phones aboard. You know, imprisonment is not the worst thing that could be, catastrophe must not be ruled out either. Unfortunately it's a reality and we should think about it.
Published 19 November 2002
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