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May 27, 2004
Mobile phone use in aircraft - is it really a safety issue?

Isn't it curious that the airline industry insists that using mobile phones in airborne aircraft poses a potential safety risk due to interference with the navigation systems, yet cabin crews have no way of checking for sure whether there are phones still left switched on in their aircraft?

It's increasingly common for phones to be left on, either in checked-in luggage or a passenger's possession, often unintentionally. It's not unusual to begin a descent and hear someone's phone go off with a text message alert, or for a phone to ring while in mid-air.

More confusion occurs with the use of phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) which have a special 'flight mode' that is supposed to disable the wireless function so that user's can use other facilities on their gadget; some users don't even switch to this mode until they power up their phone on-board while in mid-air, which means that they are using their equipment in wireless mode for some period of time anyway.

As if that wasn't enough to confuse the travelling public, there's more to come, especially with the use of wireless internet on-board. There is also the European Commission funded project, WirelessCabin (, which will start trials in August on an Airbus A340-600 aircraft. The project defines system architecture for wireless access (UMTS, W-LAN and Bluetooth) in an aircraft cabin. For this, the project has developed a service integrator that maps the cabin services on a satellite bearer to be connected to the terrestrial infrastructure. The goal of the project is to allow passengers to use their own mobile phones on-board.

It uses a concept called collectively mobile heterogeneous network (CMHN), which allows several mobile users with different access standards on the network. The aircraft cabin represents such a CMHN supporting several radio access networks.

Airbus has already conducted pre-trials under this project, and finished the system specification. Some issues were encountered which are expected to be ironed out in the main trials - for example, if the aircraft was above a certain altitude there were instances where the network was unable to log on, or connect, to the ground network.

After the trials, the project expects to conclude by creating opportunities for new services for satellite operators, mobile service providers and airlines.

As we come closer to having several different wireless technologies on board, it becomes clearer that 'safety' was probably just a smokescreen for the real, commercial issue. Airlines and operators have so far been unable to work out how best to profit from the passenger's desire to be connected while in the air, so have banned the use of phones.

But with projects like WirelessCabin, which will provide them with the technology as well as enable satisfactory billing systems to emerge, it surely won't be too long before airlines and service operators will be encouraging us to use phones on board.

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