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Why can’t you use your smartphone on an airplane?

We’re asked to not make phone calls while on a flight but is there a real reason for it?

“Fasten your seat belt. For your safety, the use of cellular/mobile phones or any electronic devices is forbidden at all times”. You might have heard that several times if you’re a frequent flyer and if you have not, it’s not something to be excited about. At times like these, you’re left with no other option but to comply with it but have you wondered what’s the real reason behind it? We’re here to find out.

When a flight attendant asks you to turn off all electronic devices, it’s widely assumed that they do so to avoid any interference between passengers’ cellular networks and the navigation system on the aircraft. But how much of that is true? In theory, electromagnetic interference from radio transmitters can indeed, to a small degree, spark interference with an aeroplane causing disruptions between air traffic control rooms and pilots. But there haven’t been any significant instances where this situation has affected aircraft electronics, meaning there’s still a lack of a definite evidence which indicates that mobile phones would cause serious issues.

How it all started

Now you might be wondering where did all these regulations come into play. Back in 1991, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in the US, banned phone calls on planes following which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered a thorough investigation of the usage of portable devices during flights. The study concluded that there was practically no such interference and thus recommended allowing the use of music and video players while on-flight. Even then, the authority prohibited switching on any electronic device while a plane was taking off or landing.

Wireless devices like cellular phones and laptops were a whole different ballgame, that was the centre of these safety concerns. To be on the safer side, FCC or other aviation regulators around the world considered to shift aircraft related communications to a different spectrum so that even a phone call won’t disrupt any communication or navigation systems. Many reports cited that there was no actual evidence into the matter and aircraft governing authorities (or the powers that be) were just playing it safe and being fine with rules as they were.

The past decade or so

Since then, modern avionics have come a long way and many authorities considered lifting such restrictions wouldn’t pose an imminent threat to any interference with ground networks. Eventually, electronic devices came into play and were allowed to be used and so were mobile phones but there was a catch. This was when the popular “flight mode” came into existence where an individual can use most of his device’s capabilities for multimedia and work but won’t be able to connect to data or make calls.

Meanwhile in India

Though the move was passed around the globe including the US back in 2007, it took India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) seven more years to remove the ban on portable electronic devices (PEDs), allowing flyers to use phones in the flight mode. The statement at that time clearly read “No person shall use any electronic device, which intentionally transmits radio signals like mobile/cellular phones, amateur radio transceivers, etc at all times while on board an aircraft for the purpose of flight”.

It was at this point when FAA in the US allowed airline operators to provide “In-Flight Mobile Services” which meant WiFi on a plane to keep things simple. Some if not several went with the flow and installed technologies that allowed phones to be connected to the internet when the plane is in its flight. The rule also expanded the use of PEDs to anytime during a flight which was never implemented in India. It came off as a surprise since the DGCA actually allowed airline companies to offer in-flight Wi-Fi solutions as well, which was never integrated into any for the most part.

This continued till the end of 2017 up until which aviation agencies and safety boards still posed resistance towards the deregulation of phone calls on aircraft slating there will be technical as well as social issues that would arise when the then-present rules would be lifted. Yes, you read that right. Several options suggest that passengers would rather opt for preventing any further sources of noise which might increase severalfold once there are phone calls on a plane.

A breath of fresh air

This brings us to January 19th of 2018, when the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) allowed in-flight connectivity (IFC) including both MCA (mobile communication on aircraft) and Internet services that allowed passengers to make calls and use cellular data while flying in the Indian airspace. TRAI said once airlines met the stated security norms, flyers will be able to make calls when above 3,000 meters above the ground.

TRAI explained that this height limitation of 3,000 meters (9,800 ft) was to make sure the operation of mobile services are compatible with terrestrial mobile networks. This was not a concern since an airline reaches an altitude of 3,000 meters after just 5 minutes of take-off. The telecom entity also recommended that providers of In-flight connectivity will fall under a different category of the same name and will need to be registered with it in order to offer its services.

While this information would need some time to sink in, we can expect a few more months till an Indian airline would start providing IFC on flights. As for foreign airlines who offer IFC, they might still need to switch off their services once they get into the Indian airspace in case they haven’t registered to the department of telecom in India. With such restrictions still on cards, we’ll certainly have to wait a bit longer till every airliner packs in-flight connectivity onboard. But at least we can be glad about the fact that we will no longer have tight restrictions when using our electronic devices, considering China still regulates a ban on the use of phones at any point during a flight, even if it’s on flight mode.

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