Is It Okay To Use Your Cellphone On An Airplane?


Being able to connect with colleagues, family and friends even from aircrafts makes sense for a business traveller who is constantly on the move. EXEC talks to Stephan Egli, Chief Commercial Officer of Geneva based inflight communication technology firm, OnAir, about the hazards of cellphone use on an airplane and the latest sophisticated technologies that allow on-air mobile communication

By Samiha Nettikkara

The aircraft is about to take off, and you know you have to rush to a meeting straight from the airport. Due to the hectic week, you have not had time to brush up on the agenda and you are fervently looking through the emails on your BlackBerry when the cabin address system says: “Please turn off all electronic devices”.

Your idea to surreptitiously continue using your cellphone is disrupted by a reel of disastrous “what ifs” playing in slo-mo in your head. Is it true that using cellphones on air can lead to aviation accidents? First off, Stephan Egli, the CCO of inflight communication firm OnAir, points out that there is no proof that verifies the harmful effects of using cellphones on aircrafts. But logic says that there is reason to worry, “Cellphones on airplanes usually have just one bar of signal, and in areas where the coverage is poor, the cellphone emits more power to try and find signals from terrestrial networks. So, theoretically, on an aircraft, if there are 300 passengers holding a cellphone, the power emitted would be quite strong, and the emissions might interfere with the cockpit.”

This risk associated with electromagnetic interference is why aviation airworthiness authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have prohibited the use of electronics below 10,000 feet. At lower altitudes, pilots do not enough time to deal with any problems that might arise.

However, there is no need to fret as OnAir has developed technology that allows use of cellphones on aircrafts. The Mobile OnAir system emulates a local GSM network inside the aircraft. Cellphones can access the on-air network to find signals easily (as long as their home operator is one among the 275 that has tied up with OnAir) and emit much lower transmission power, ensuring the safe operation of the aircraft. There is no risk of interference with cellular networks on the ground as the system jams any terrestrial signals.

Passengers connect via international roaming to the OnAir service, which is enabled automatically once the aircraft reaches 4,000 metres above the ground. However, in line with regulatory requirements, the system is automatically disable while taking off and landing. “Taking off and landing are the most dangerous parts of an air journey,” explains Egli. “Just like the way you stow away the luggage to keep the cabin clear of any disturbances, all electronic devices have to be switched off during take off and landing.”

The crew of the airline can also disable the system at any time, or switch it to ‘text and email only’ mode. Passengers are also advised to put their cellphone on vibrate mode to not disturb other passengers.

The Mobile OnAir system has also been tested and approved by European Aviation Safety Agency and FAA, and has been installed in aircrafts manufactured by Airbus. “The system has been fitted in more than 150,000 flights including those of Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines, and Emirates.” In the coming years, Egli predicts that both old and new will be retrofitted with this technology.

And of course, the heaviest use of this service will be by business travellers. “Business travellers have to always be connected, whether on email or on their BlackBerry. They expect this facility on an airline as well.”

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