What’s the deal with cell phones? Are they really a safety threat?

Few rules are more confounding than those regarding the use of cell phones and portable electronic devices (PEDs). Are these gadgets really hazardous to flight? People want a simple, fits-all answer. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. It depends on the gadget and how and when that gadget is used.

Let’s take laptops first. In theory, an old or poorly shielded computer can emit harmful energy. However, the main reasons laptops need to be put away for takeoff and landing is to prevent them from becoming high-speed projectiles during a sudden deceleration or impact and to help keep the passageways clear if there’s need for an evacuation. Your computer is a piece of luggage, and luggage needs to be stowed so it doesn’t kill somebody or get in the way. This is why, after landing, flight attendants make an announcement permitting the use of phones but not computers. There’s still the possibility, remote as it might be, of having to leave the plane in a hurry, and you don’t want people tripping over their MacBooks as they make for the exits.

With tablet devices like Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, earlier rules banning their use during takeoff and landing have been rescinded. From an interference perspective, it was tough to take this prohibition seriously now that most pilots are using tablets in the cockpit. The projectile argument was similarly specious: nobody wants an iPad whizzing into his or her forehead at 180 miles per hour, yet hardback books are just as heavy, if not heavier, and we never had a book ban.

And finally, the big one: mobile phones. Can cellular communications really disrupt cockpit equipment? The answer is potentially yes, but in all likelihood no. Even if it is not actively engaged with a call, a powered phone dispatches bursts of energy that can, in theory, interfere with a plane’s electronics. Aircraft are designed and shielded with this interference in mind, however, and this should mitigate any ill effects.

For years, airlines and regulators had been erring on the zero-tolerance, better-safe-than-sorry side. Each time we flew, the never-tedious safety briefing would frighten us into making sure our phones were in the proverbial off position prior to taxiing. Things have changed. In the United States, the FAA still restricts phones to airplane mode, but inflight texting and browsing, via Wi-Fi, are freely permitted. Elsewhere, there’s confidence enough that more than thirty airlines, including Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, Aeroflot, and Alitalia, now allow inflight calling.

When aloft, calls are routed through something called a “picocell,” a miniature onboard base station. Picocells depower the energy your phone emits before relaying the signal either via satellite or to specially configured ground towers.

Where call bans still exist, it’s possible that worries over safety are being used as a convenient means of avoiding the bigger issue here — that is, the social ramifications of allowing calls from planes. Once a call ban is lifted, you’re pitting one angry group of travelers against another, with carriers stuck in the middle. If indeed this is the game being played, count me among those who hope the prohibition stays in place—not out of technical concerns, but for the sake of some bloody peace and quiet. The sensory bombardment inside airports is overwhelming enough. The airplane cabin is a last refuge of relative silence (so long as there isn’t a baby wailing). Let’s keep it that way.

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