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What can I do for my personal safety when I see a fellow passenger use their cellphone after the instructions to switch off mobile devices is given?

On a recent flight in India, I was seated next to a passenger who kept on with his cell phone call even after the air hostesses kept asking him to turn his phone off. His call went on from boarding the aircraft until a short duration after take off. I was very concerned for my and my family's safety, but did not know what I could do.

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The flight attendants were aware. That is all that is needed. – Kate Gregory Jan 27 at 12:41
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"The flight attendants were aware. That is all that is needed." Yup, if this was a real problem, they would have made damn sure the cellphone usage stopped. – fkraiem Jan 27 at 14:00
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Note: While the electronic device usage ban during critical flight phase (i.e. taxi, takeoff, and approach/landing) of years past was indeed due to flight safety concerns, the ban on cell phone usage in flight isn't. That regulation is designed to protect the cell network from being bombarded by phones pinging hundreds of towers at once and handing off between towers every few seconds, not to protect the aircraft. – reirab Jan 27 at 20:30
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Also, as mentioned in this answer on Aviation.SE, at least in the U.S., the FCC is considering removing the rule against using cellular devices in flight, as the previously-mentioned concerns don't affect newer cell networks nearly as much as the older ones. – reirab Jan 27 at 20:37
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If your safety is the primary concern, it is far safer for you to ignore and forget about it than to say anything to the other passenger or any of the crew. Though irritating the other passenger by complaining carries only s slight risk, it's still a greater risk than the cell call is to you or the aircraft. – user2338816 Jan 28 at 5:10

10 Answers 10

You don't have to be too worried about it, since the aircraft is able to cope with this. People are instructed to turn them off in order to avoid some disturbances and parasite noise in the communication between the pilot and the airport. As electronic devices using radio frequencies, they could also in theory cause some troubles to some aircraft equipment's but this is pure theory as all equipments are properly protected now. So even if the phone is turned on, it won't make the aircraft go down.

Keep in mind that a lot of people forget to switch on the flight mode (above 30% from studies) and this never caused a plane incident...

Then, if you are still worried about it, just report it to the cabin crew. They are here to make this stop...

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And as a side note, the aircraft radios run in the 110-140MHz range, while your cell phone is closer to 1900MHz (or 800MHz for some carriers). This is an enormous separation when it comes to RF, and it won't do anything to air-to-ground comms. – Daniel Feb 1 at 20:15
    
I was under the impression that the electronic device ban on take-off is to ensure no distractions for passengers in the case of evacuation and to reduce potential cabin debris. – Gusdor Feb 2 at 12:27
    
Do you have some authoritative references for your claims? – JoErNanO Feb 16 at 13:07

As a cabin crew member for long time, I can tell you that your responsibility ends by notifying a crew member, that's it. Let the crew members deal with it.

This is true for all other violations, unless it's a life threatening situation that cannot wait, for example fire! Grab the extinguisher and fight the fire. But that's a whole different issue.

Regarding cell phones and out of personal experience, many people do not switch them off. In almost all my flights shortly before landings I hear one or two phones ringing, they must have been left on during the whole flight and once they get a signal they start getting messages or calls. I myself forgot mine switched on a few times, and believe it or not, sometimes when I reach my destination I find the famous welcome SMS from one or two operators along the way, how did it get the signal that high I don't know. Bottom line, I never crashed.

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+1 for the first two paragraphs. Regarding the third, at least here in the U.S., the ban on cell phone usage in flight has absolutely nothing to do with flight safety. It's an FCC (communications) regulation, not an FAA (aviation) regulation. Its purpose is to protect the cell network, not the airplanes. That said, it's mostly outdated and the FCC is considering removing it. The electronic device usage ban during critical flight phases was indeed for aviation safety (and was an FAA reg,) but it's been lifted. – reirab Jan 27 at 20:25
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If we accept that the author really was an airline cabin crew member, then this is more than just "anectdotal evidence". If there were any real danger, then cabin crew would have been instructed to seize any phones found powered on during takeoff and seal them in RF shielding cages. The fact that 300 passengers are trusted on their own to remember to turn off their phones goes to show that airlines don't feel that there's any real danger or passengers wouldn't be entrusted to do it themselves. – Johnny Jan 28 at 21:23
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@Johnny That's not really true. If a single phone occasionally pinging a tower would immediately bring down a plane, then, yeah, sure, they'd do what you said. However, there's a big difference between that (which obviously isn't true) and there being a one in ten million chance that some poorly-manufactured device could emit a signal that causes a bad ILS indication while the pilots are attempting to fly a final approach in bad visibility over mountainous terrain. Indeed, pilots may still tell you to turn devices off in such cases. – reirab Jan 31 at 5:55
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In short, risk management is almost never "all or nothing." The reason we don't thoroughly search everyone for electronic devices and throw them all in an RF shield cage for the duration of the flight is the same reason you don't drive a tank down the road or employ a private IT team to work 24/7 protecting your home computer from intrusion. It doesn't mean there's no risk; it just means that the risk isn't high enough to merit that level of cost to mitigate. That's how risk management pretty much always works. Aviation is no different. – reirab Jan 31 at 6:01

A few years ago I read a study about cell phone usage on U.S. domestic flights. Using RF locating equipment, they determined that the average U.S. flight has 2-3 cellphones left transmitting during the flight. Unconfirmed pilot anecdotes notwithstanding, if there were any significant risk of planes malfunctioning from cellphones, they would be falling out of the sky on a regular basis. There is no scientific basis to think that the cellphone transmissions are a risk to aircraft. I wouldn't worry about it.

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This answer would be improved by a link to the study cited. – March Ho Jan 27 at 14:52
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I was not able to find that original study. I did find a more recent one where the FAA is reviewing cellular use with picocells. They've already been approved in other countries, with no indications of interfering with the plane. files.ctia.org/pdf/AIR_CellPhoneStudy__2_.pdf – Byron Jones Jan 27 at 15:04
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Yes, I'm an amateur radio operator, so I'm aware of the power levels involved. The typical GSM transmission is in the range of 500mw, with a peak transmission from the phone of about 2000mw. The difference is less than one order of magnitude. Please note that the weather radar mounted at the front of the most modern passenger aircraft operates at microwave frequencies as well, and transmits with several hundred watts of radiated power. EMF interference in the cockpit is far more likely to emanate from the radar than the passenger cellphones. – Byron Jones Jan 27 at 21:38
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@reirab Please keep in mind that in RF communications, orders of magnitude aren't as "big" as it may first appear. Just free space loss is proportional to power of 2. There's a reason why decibells are so often used. While 500 mW to 2 W (for example) may seem like an order of magnitude more, it's difference of 6 dB, which isn't all that big in the RF scale of things. – AndrejaKo Jan 27 at 22:46
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@reirab you are correct that picocells use less power, but they are only used in a small portion of planes. The numbers I used are more likely to be seen in typical situations. As for 2Wx100s, it is unlikely that on any flight you would find hundreds of cellphones all transmitting at peak power simultaneously. When phones are idle, their communications tend to be in sporadic bursts. In flight, you would have phones attempting to establish connections to ground towers, but even that is bursty. This is all academic however, as real world experience has shown that this is not a danger. – Byron Jones Jan 28 at 16:21

Your personal safety is not affected by your fellow passenger using a cellphone.

In the US, the FCC (not the FAA!) has limited use of cellphones on aircraft because of the potential effect on cell towers on the ground.

From an empirical standpoint, if there was a significant risk, it would have been observed many times by now as people frequently leave their phones on inadvertently. And it would have been exploited by more nefarious sorts.

From a social standpoint, it is often very disturbing to have to listen to someone else talking at length on a cellphone, it makes it hard to either relax or focus (apart from the often unwelcome insight into the talkers personality or foibles).

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I didn't know until I started working in the field, but the most serious problem with leaving your cellphone on is the frequent failed attempts to connect to the many cell towers you are passing over at 500 mph. Not only does this tie up the towers' ability to connect with other people, it drains your handset battery faster.

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This is precisely the reason that the cell phone ban in flight exists (at least in the U.S.) It's an FCC (communication) reg, not an FAA (aviation) reg. That said, newer cell phone networks are not bothered as much by it, so the FCC has stated that they're considering discontinuing this reg. That said, other federal agencies have said that they may place a ban on voice communications in flight just because most people don't want to listen to other people's conversations for hours. Some airlines (including Delta) have stated that they'll continue to ban them for this reason, regardless of regs. – reirab Jan 28 at 3:40
    
This is why I switch off my mobile telephone even when I travel by car or train. – gerrit Jan 29 at 17:18
    
@gerrit You mean European trains. This is not so important with American trains. :-( – Andrew Lazarus Jan 29 at 17:38
    
@AndrewLazarus Why not? You mean that they're so slow they might as well be considered stationary? – gerrit Jan 29 at 17:58
    
Depends what train you're on. Amtrak's are notoriously bad; and if they're traveling even at 80mph (which is an over-estimate), they're still traveling at the speed of your car, and probably 90% of Americans bring their phones into their cars. Because of that, this problem would have already been addressed. – DevilApple227 Jan 29 at 23:12

My father's an airline pilot (United Airlines) and this is something that I've asked him about at length. The idea that any kind of signal from your cellphone can interfere with a plane's electronics is purely myth (Though one that the airlines are happy to allow to propagate). There're endless such signals in the air at all times anyways, and modern planes are designed to deal with them to the extent of being a non-issue.

The reason passengers are asked to turn them off around take-off time isn't related to the actual take-off so much as it is to the safety briefings that occur at that time. By removing the #1 distraction from the passengers, the flight crew hopes that more people will pay attention to the briefings, and be better prepared for an emergency. (Obviously enforcing total attention is impossible, but they will do whatever they can to help.)

If someone next to you is not paying attention because of their phone, then they're simply choosing not to pay attention to the safety briefing, but they're not immediately dangerous.

Conceivably, this could be a problem if the offender is sitting in an exit row, but in that case, the flight crew will have a very direct one-on-one conversation with him to ensure that he is capable of fulfilling the extra duties.

opinion: You could, if you wanted to be especially safe, suggest to the individual, during the briefing, that they pay attention, since "this is pretty important, y'know," however if they're a seasoned traveler, they're likely already quire familiar with it.

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Bottomline, if the guy on the phone is annoying: talk to him. Otherwise, plug in your earphones and get some sleep. – Stephan Bijzitter Jan 27 at 19:22
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If that's really the case, then why aren't you banned from reading a book? – Casey Jan 27 at 21:39
    
"then they're stupid" -- really? That sounds rather harsh. It may well be they have flown before, or many times before. – donjuedo Jan 27 at 23:16
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@Casey If I'm reading a book, that doesn't affect your ability to listen to the safety briefing; if I'm talking on my phone, that affects everybody around me. – David Richerby Jan 28 at 1:58
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@dirkk, dan-klasson,: I know the drill already but I still find the videos helpful since at the very least they show where the exits are and how many of them there are... and you won't know if there is anything in there that is more unique to the aircraft or flight unless you actually listen. – Mehrdad Jan 31 at 7:53

Note that while EMI concerns are practically bogus considering modern airplanes and mobile phones, you are still required to turn off all electronics during takeoff and landing, for your own safety. In case your airplane has to make an RTO maneuver or catches fire, you won't see it coming if you're concentrated on your phone or laptop. You may get hurt (especially if your laptop/phone is on the unfolded tray table) or lose precious time during evacuation.

So while you can't really force other people into following the rules to the letter, I advise you to listen to crew messages yourself and do what they say.

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This does not seem to be an answer to the question actually asked. – Henning Makholm Jan 27 at 17:40
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Nor is it accurate. Depending on the country and airline policy, you may likely be allowed to keep electronics on during takeoff and landing. That doesn't mean you're allowed to sit there with a laptop on an open tray table during landing, but holding a cell phone in your hand during landing is often allowed, as it's not particularly different from a book or a magazine. Except for planned emergency landings, I've never heard of an airline insisting that all passengers sit straight and undistracted during takeoff or landing, though you're free to do so if you wish. – Zach Lipton Jan 27 at 22:13
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Also, that was not the reason for the creation of the regs. The electronic device regs were indeed due to EMI concerns, especially with the localizer and glideslope. The cell phone-specific regs are not due to concerns with the airplane at all, but rather with the cell network. Thousands of phones buzzing around at 700 mph transmitting at full power with line-of-sight to hundreds of towers used to mess with the older cell networks. The regs that tell you to leave your laptop stowed during taxi/takeoff/landing are more to do with not wanting 5-10 lb projectiles flying around the cabin. – reirab Jan 28 at 3:34
    
So airplnanes are like a DDOS moving around? – beppe9000 Jan 28 at 10:12
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@beppe9000 any sufficiently large group of people with mobile phones is a DoS attack on GSM network. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jan 28 at 10:32

Your Safety is Compromised if You’re an Intervener

If you feel compelled to do something about someone 'breaking the rules' you may want to consider why it's so important for others to follow them.

Primarily, if you find yourself wanting to intervene and play Sherriff you may find yourself in a compromising position if the person you are trying to 'control' verbally doesn't take kindly to your efforts.

There are all manner of mental issues humans are dealing with as well as the very situation where altitude effects an individuals judgement. A good natured person could turn on you in a delusional state if are trying to get them to what YOU want them to do and take your non-confrontational efforts as very confrontational. Reality is a subjective business and we all perceive moments in time the way we as individuals perceive it.

If you would up in a confrontation with another passenger on an airline you could find yourself in jail even though you did nothing wrong because, again, your actions will be perceived from the outside looking in and it's subjective to the viewer.

Reality Check

Imagine a scenario where you are landing in Malaysia or Singapore and your punishment for 'being aggressive' and 'disrupting an International flight' has corporal punishment associated with it. Add to that the state of prison systems in some 2nd and 3rd world countries and the potentially horrible experience you could have because of misperception from others over a cel phone issue and you can play out a very dark storyline.

I only say this because people are incorrectly perceived all day, every day, around the world and another person's testimony to an officer can carry a lot of weight if they are an excellent communicator.

Getting involved in others actions that you see as 'wrong' is a dangerous business. I will say that from own opinion I find other attempts at getting someone to adhere to a ruleset whether it's their own or an entities as someone who has issues with control and that, in terms of personal mental health, should be dealt with as a much higher priority.

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"2nd and 3rd world countries" That phrase does not mean what you think that phrase means. Specifically, "first/second/third world" does not refer to levels of economic development. The first world is the US and its allies; the second world was the Soviet Union and its allies; the third world is everyone else. So, for example, Switzerland is a third world country. – David Richerby Jan 28 at 2:21
    
I added some in front of 2nd and 3rd world. I understand the def. TY – Citizen Jan 28 at 2:53
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OK; but that phrase still doesn't mean what most of your readers probably think it means. The whole first/second/third world thing is an anachronism, nearly a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The point your making isn't really related to whether or not the country in question is aligned with the US; rather, it's about the country's human rights record and the fact that all prisons are pretty unpleasant places to be (or so I hear) and that this is doubly true in countries with dodgy human rights records and different attitudes towards justice. – David Richerby Jan 28 at 3:05
    
Feel free to propose an edit to clarify. – Citizen Jan 28 at 3:14
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Switzerland is an ally of the USA and not a 3rd world country, nor has it ever been. Its neutrality is only de jure. – gerrit Jan 29 at 17:16

As pointed out in the answers given so far, a few mobile phones are not going to cause problems. We then have a few 100 milliwatt transmitting power on frequencies that are totally different from what the plane uses to communicate with ATC, and all equipment used by the plane are well shielded from EMF interference, so it looks like we can just allow everyone to use their phones. However I see some problems here.

Without the request to shut off mobile phones or only use them in flight mode, you could well have hundreds of phones turned on, particularly during landing (people want to call home, call to arrange a taxi etc. etc.). The radio link between the phones inside the plane and the relay stations are quite poor due to the airframe, as a result the phones automatically upregulate their transmission power. All these phones then start to interfere with each other more and more causing the power to be upregulated even more, so you'll end up with hundreds of phones transmitting at the maximum power of, say, 2 Watts inside the plane.

So, it's not all that unrealistic to assume that without the rule to shut off phones, you would routinely have to deal with a total RF power inside the plane of the order of half a kilowatt during landing. Inside the plane, most of that power gets reflected in rather random ways, it can get concentrated at certain points. The phones get affected by all that power too, they can start to produce harmonics at different frequencies than they normally transmit at. After all, a phone is far less well shielded against EMF interference than the aircraft equipment. Even a weak spurious signal appearing on an ATC frequency (just a very small fraction of that half a kilowatt is needed for that) could cause disaster.

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As a private pilot I can tell you cell phones do not interfere with flight systems. If that was the case, planes would go down every time they fly over a cell phone tower. A cell phone tower emits energy in the 800MHz band trillions of times stronger than a cell phone. You don't see planes crashing every time they pass over a cell tower, do you?

Don't worry about it.

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Yeah, my son called me from a private plane. I figured they were going slow enough and just doing circles over SF Bay, the phone company could handle it. – Andrew Lazarus Jan 28 at 1:36
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Sorry, but this is completely wrong. I know "trillions" was deliberate hyperbole but a typical cell phone transmits at about 0.5W; base stations transmit at up to about 100W, which is only 200 times more powerful. Furthermore, the power you receive decreases with the square of the distance so, for example, if you're flying 500m (~1500ft) above a cell tower, you're only receiving one 250,000th of the amount of energy that you would by flying 1m above it. Now bear in mind that the cell phone in your plane is within ~1m of you. You're getting much more power from the phone than the tower. – David Richerby Jan 28 at 2:13
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I'm both a (private) pilot and an engineer who designs RF equipment. David Richerby is exactly right. Actually, the difference is even more, since the transmit antennas on the towers are typically not omnidirectional. They're normally aimed outwards and down a few degrees, not up. – reirab Jan 28 at 3:43
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I'm not a pilot, but fly privately all the time. I agree with @DavidRicherby and reirab on this one. – Gayot Fow Feb 1 at 9:50

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