The (Cell) Phony Controversy Over In-Flight Calls

ByABC News
July 11, 2005, 9:15 AM

July 12, 2005 -- -- It's like being caught by the teacher passing notes in class. All you want to do is call your neighbor to make sure the sprinkler's off, but suddenly a flight attendant materializes beside your seat ordering you to turn off your cell phone.

"Why?" you ask, as politely as possible, clumsily jabbing the off button while your neighbor back home answers a dead line. You know the phone only puts out a fraction of a watt of radio energy that couldn't heat up a gnat.

"Because," the flight attendant replies, "it interferes with the navigation equipment of this aircraft."

Is the flight attendant right?

Well, it's certainly true that all flight attendants in North America have been told cell phones can interfere, and their procedures leave no wiggle room as to when all those pesky phones have to be off. In addition, you'll find many pilots absolutely convinced (without evidence) that cell phones can interfere with the instruments up front in the cockpit, and you'll find others outside the industry equally convinced that cell phones are flatly dangerous to the safety of big air machines.

But in reality, there is no proof that it's true. In fact, something the U.S. government is about to do completely invalidates the fears of the past.

The subject of airborne cell phones and alleged interference has become hopelessly mired in a combination of mythology and unsubstantiated allegations -- not the least of which is the urban legend that the airlines ban airborne cell phone usage to force you to use their expensive seatback phones (not true).

Here's what's really going on.

First, two major federal agencies got confused early on about who should decide the issue. In the mid-'80s, when cell phones were the size of a brick and put out a far more powerful analog signal, the Federal Aviation Administration expected the Federal Communications Commission to answer whether such signals could interfere with the instruments in an airliner. The FCC, however, tossed the ball right back to the FAA, saying it was an air safety issue it wasn't equipped to research. In the meantime, more of us cellular pioneer users were happily dialing up from our window seat at altitude, only to get hit with a bill at the end of the moth featuring multiple "access" roaming charges of $3 apiece because our airborne signal had been latching onto and then jumping away from dozens of cell phone towers on the ground below.