Plane Answers: A rant in favor of cell phones on airplanes

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Bud vents a little frustration:

There is no data whatsoever that cell phones interfere with airplane navigation systems. In fact, there have been tests with cell phone signals amplified ten fold and without interference. So every time the flight attendent comes on the intercom and tells the cabin to turn off cell phones because “they may interfere” with the airplanes navigation system, I simply stop and think to myself, that if they would lie to me about something that doesn’t hurt at all, how much can they be trusted to tell me the truth about something that really might be harmful. I think that if you will lie about a small thing, you will lie about a big one. And since the Captain allows the lie to be broadcast, who can you really trust? Reminds me of the government agent arriving on a doorstep and saying “trust me, I’m here to help you!” Yeah! Right?

I don’t agree with your logic, Bud. The most frequently quoted study was done by Carnigie Mellon University in 2003. Their comprehensive findings were summarized as follows:
The key conclusions were that (1) onboard cellular telephone calls were observed in-flight and activity is appreciable; (2) signal activity was observed in the aviation critical frequency bands at field strengths capable of causing interference to onboard avionics; and (3) onboard spectral activity was observed at flight critical phases.

The entire report is fascinating, but if you don’t have the time to read it all, here is a short interview with Bill Strauss, the person responsible for the report. He found that 1/3 of the time cell phones were being used illegally inflight, their frequencies actually crossed into the GPS band.

The FAA mandates in FAR 91.21 that carriers restrict the use of non-approved electronics devices. Flight attendants are required to enforce these regulations, and even the inflight announcements restricting cell phone use made by the cabin crew must be signed off by the FAA. So, instead of lying to you, these flight attendants are complying with the regulations of their job.

To borrow your logic a bit, let’s imagine a flight attendant who skipped the cell phone announcement. What other parts of their job might they be neglecting? Can you then trust them to check their fire extinguisher, oxygen and escape slide pressures before departure?

It’s been the policy of each of the airlines I’ve worked for that pilots and flight attendants are to be truthful with passengers.

It doesn’t matter what the delay is, we will always try to give as much insight as possible into the reason. There’s honestly no incentive for us to tell passengers anything other than the truth.

The airline I currently work for decided to go through the long and costly process to demonstrate to the FAA that cell phone use after landing and while taxiing to the gate was safe.

The test involved filling every seat with a person using a cell phone from a variety of manufacturers on each of the airplanes the airline operated.

Little regard was given to GPS and ground-based navigation interference, since the airplane was simply taxiing to the gate. Subsequently, each airplane type at the company passed, except for one. When this airplane, an Airbus, was tested, for some reason the smoke detector in a lavatory would activate.

After further modifications, the FAA approved cell phone use while taxiing in for each one of our aircraft types. I realize this is anecdotal, but it does represent at least some sort of interference, I suppose.

In the past, the FCC banned cell phones inflight because they would interfere with the networks on the ground. According to the author of the Carnegie Mellon study:

The FCC feels it can probably lift the ban, even if there are problems of interference [on board airplanes]. They’re saying to FAA, “If you want a ban, that’s your territory.”

Europe has recently approved cell phone use inflight, but that’s still subject to the European Aviation Safety Agency determining that interference isn’t an issue. I suppose in the U.S. if the public demands the use of cell phones on an airplane (a big if) then it’s going to be up to the airlines to convince the FAA it’s safe.

But please don’t blame the pilots or the flight attendants for following the regulations that are currently in place.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.

EU to be the most surveilled region in the world

Privacy these days is a myth. I rang for a taxi the other day, and before I could say hello, I was greeted with my name and my residential address. Why does a taxi company have to know where I live if I haven’t told them?

Also, telecom providers who I don’t have a contract with, often call me on my cell and address me by my name. How did they get my personal cell number and full name? Do they have my credit card details as well? Probably.

When we travel, we have to give all our personal details anyway, so the EU‘s latest agreement to share these details with national and international authorities (depending on the countries we are entering and exiting): names, passport numbers, addresses, credit card details, email addresses, and phone numbers — in the name of fighting terrorism and organized crime, is no surprise.

What’s surprising is that on analyzing this most elementary information in the UK recently, British authorities arrested 1200 suspects. How is that possible? I suppose it’s more important to know the accuracy of the findings, i.e. how many of those arrests were valid?

So the EU’s request to allow the sharing of passenger details is under debate, but if it is approved, the EU will beat the US to being the most surveilled place on the planet.

I find it both scary and amazing how the information we give out willingly when we travel can be used get gory details of our lives.

[Via Guardian]

Real Fishermen–Carpe Diem

Neil’s post about goulash reminded me of another controversial Czech specialty – fried carp. Don’t make that disgusted face! Carp can actually taste good, if prepared properly.

Europe has a fascinating history of fish farming, or aquaculture, dating back to the Middle Ages. Historically, monasteries were the centers of the nascent fishing “industry,” and many ponds were created to feed members of the Church.

This tradition dates back to the 11th century, and spread throughout Europe. My home country, the Czech Republic, was one of the biggest fishing centers, sporting as many as 25,000 fish ponds by the 15th century.

The primary meal fish is, and has been, carp, but eel, pike, perch, and trout are also common–and tasty–fish “crops.”

The tradition continues to this day, but you’ll have to travel a little out of the way to see it in action. You’re not going to see these events on a tour bus or just sitting around in the city. No, you’re going to have to get out to the country, to a local fish farmer.

The most common, most efficient, method is to drain the lake to one end, and just scoop up net-fulls of thrashing fish. In Czech, we call it a “vylov” (pronounced “VEE-lof”). The modern method usually goes like this: men from the village are invited to come at 4am, warmly dressed, ready to get drunk, and get wet. Waders or tall waterproof boots are required. Big, burly men catch, separate, and weigh the fish, which are quickly put into holding tanks on big trucks–essentially aquariums on wheels. Water, fish, and body-warming slivovice (90+ proof clear plum brandy–preferably homemade) are sloshed around in a frenzy until the lake is emptied. The pace slows somewhat, as the slivovice kicks in, but it’s still a blur of activity. The day is capped off by a big feast for the participants, with, of course, delicious dishes made of fish: fish soup, smoked fish, and fried fish.

Once a tanker truck is full, it’s bound for markets all over Europe, or, at Christmas time, particularly in Germany and the former Eastern block, the fish end up in big barrels for purchase by families who can’t wait to put their carp in the bathtub, where they swim briefly before being prepared in the Christmas Eve dinner.

Unfortunately, the European Union’s ridiculous, burdensome regulations are killing local agriculture and aquaculture. Better get there soon, or it will all be gone.