Why we still use 'airplane mode' on flights, even though some countries no longer care
(NEXSTAR) – Come next year, airline passengers within the European Union will no longer have to set their mobile phones to “airplane mode” when hopping on a flight.
The European Commission decided in November to allow airlines operating in the EU to “provide the latest 5G technology on their planes,” thereby allowing passengers to operate their phones just as they would on the ground, and resulting in faster messaging, phone and data services, according to a recent press release.
In the U.S., however, the same idea appears to be just a flight of fancy.
As it currently stands, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restrict the usage of cellular devices on civilian aircraft, with exceptions for devices that can be disabled from cellular transmission functions — or, in other words, devices that can be placed in “airplane mode.”
The reasoning, as repeatedly outlined by the FAA, concerns the possibility of certain signals causing interference to the “navigation or communications” system of the aircraft, per FAA advisories and federal regulations. The FCC has also said in the past that a ban on using certain frequency bands was implemented to prevent in-flight usage from creating “potential interference to wireless networks on the ground.”
When wireless providers began upgrading to 5G, this presented another set of problems.
And even as recently as this year, AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay the rollout of 5G services near dozens of airports at the request of the government, amid concerns over that the relatively new technology could interfere with aircraft altimeters — instruments used by pilots to measure altitude and aid with low-visibility landings, and which provide information to an aircraft’s automated safety systems.
“In the United States, 5G services launched in 46 markets on January 19, using frequencies in a radio spectrum called the C-band,” the FAA explains on its website. “These frequencies can be close to those used by radio altimeters, an important piece of safety equipment in aircraft.”
The FAA and the U.S. aviation industry are working to fix the issue, in part by having airlines and aircraft operators upgrade or retrofit planes with altimeters that are not susceptible to 5G interference. Verizon and AT&T had also agreed earlier this year to “some level of voluntary mitigations” concerning 5G rollout near specific airports, at least through the middle of 2023, the FAA announced in June.
Why, then, would the European Commission make moves to allow 5G technology on planes in the EU, when most aircraft models are the same as those operated by U.S.-based airlines?
The FAA says it’s because 5G technology in other parts of the world works differently than it does in the U.S. Their networks may use lower power, strategically placed antennas, and perhaps most importantly, “frequencies with a different proximity to frequencies used by aviation equipment.”
Dai Whittingham, the chief executive of the UK Flight Safety Committee, spoke to the same difference last week.
“There is much less prospect of interference,” Whittingham said, per the BBC. “We have a different set of frequencies for 5G, and there are lower power settings than those that have been allowed in the U.S.”
Bottom line? The FAA is working to protect the airlines and aviators from possible interference from 5G networks, but there’s still work to be done.
In its last 5G update in June, the FAA said “mainline commercial” fleets should be retrofitted with upgraded altimeters or 5G filters by July 2023, after which the wireless companies are expected to continue rollout of 5G networks near most airports “with minimal restrictions.”
It’s likely, however, that airline passengers will have to wait for the FAA to conduct additional safety tests before getting the go-ahead to use 5G capabilities in the air.
“Aviation in the U.S. is the safest in the world. That’s because we rely on data to mitigate risk, and never assume that a piece of equipment or a given flight scenario is safe until this can be demonstrated,” the FAA states on its website.
“If there’s the possibility of a risk to the flying public, we are obligated to restrict the relevant flight activity until we can prove it is safe.”