Topic: Science & Technology

The Airplane and the Cell Phone: A Real Life Ethical Dilemma
(6/9/2008)

From the Institute for Global Ethics, Rushton Kidder's excellent ethics website, the Scoreboard learned about a fascinating story that had slipped past its radar.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight from Austin to Dallas had been charged with disorderly conduct after refusing to end a cell phone call when flight attendants demanded that he do so. Joe David Jones was talking to doctors about end-of-life options for his father, who was expected to die any second. Attendants told police on the ground that Jones had also become profane and "uncontrollable."

As all frequent flyers know, FAA regulations prohibit cell phone use on planes, supposedly because it could interfere with navigation systems. Airlines can receive fines of $25,000 or more if they allow cell phone use in the air. Jones apparently had forgotten to turn the phone off during the flight (I've done that!) and received an urgent mid-flight message from his father's physicians regarding his father's deteriorating condition. Distraught, concerned and focusing on his father, he did not feel that the regulations trumped his father's welfare. He called the hospital back, multiple times. The calls were made during the plane's final approach, which the airlines regard as a particularly dangerous time to have cell phones transmitting.

Should Jones have made the calls? Should the flight attendants have made an exception for him? Did either of them behave unethically?

Reserving for a moment the question of whether it's even relevant to these questions, let it be said that there is a great deal of uncertainty over the question of whether cell phone use in flight actually poses any real threat. The Federal Aviation Administration's official position is that cell phones might produce significant radio frequency interference, possibly disrupting avionics, including a plane's Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. This possibility was highlighted in the March 2006 issue of IEEE Spectrum, the monthly publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. An article, entitled "Unsafe at Any Airspeed?", by Carnegie Mellon researchers Bill Strauss, M. Granger Morgan, and Daniel Stancil noted that passengers do surreptitiously use cell phones calls during flight, and that this might, in some circumstances, lead to interference with avionics systems through a process known as intermodulation.

Intermodulation occurs when two radio signals of different frequencies interact, causing spikes in new frequency ranges. Strauss and his co-authors noted that signals within the two main cell-phone frequency ranges used in the United States (the cellular band at 824 to 849 megahertz range, and PCS at 1850 to 1910 megahertz) do not interfere with those used by most aircraft navigation aviation systems. Yet Strauss, who applied radio-monitoring equipment on several commercial flights, reported seeing intermodulation effects from cell-phone signals "in the frequency bands used by an aircraft's GPS and distance-measuring equipment." Since 2006, the issue has been under study without a clear conclusion.

No flight has ever been brought down or had its performance disrupted because of cell phone use. And consider this: while nail clippers, scissors and shampoo are confiscated at the gate because they could be used by terrorists, cell phones are not. How dangerous could the airline industry and the FAA really think they are? If a terrorist could possibly destroy a plane with a cell phone, one would think this would have been attempted by now. The suspicion is strong among many flyers, including this one, that the prohibition against cell phone use is more based on inertia than safety.

Well, never mind. The Southwest flight attendants had been told that a cell phone call during a flight could endanger all the passengers, the crew and themselves. There is no good argument for them permitting Jones to continue the call…even if it really was a life-and-death matter. Their duty is to all the passengers, not just Jones, and certainly not to Jones' family. As it happens, Jones' dilemma, important as it was, was not a life-and-death matter. His father was going to die, and he knew it when he got on the plane. He wasn't going to change his father's welfare by a phone call.

And even if he could have affected his father's status with his phone call, Jones could not ethically put the entire flight in danger for one family member, or for that matter, ten family members. He has no right to risk the safety of the plane.

Well, what if Jones was an expert on intermodulation, and knew for a fact that his particular phone signal was no more dangerous to the plane than two tin cans connected by a string? That's tougher situation to assess. If he knew—not just believed or suspected, but knew—that making the call would put the plane at no risk whatsoever, and was willing to pay the price of breaking the regulations, he could be regarded as acting ethically by making the call… until the attendants told him to stop. Disobeying flight attendants mid-flight, upsetting other passengers and creating turmoil is itself a danger.

There is, however, no evidence that Jones was an intermodulation guru. He was wrong, and behaved unethically. The attendants were absolutely right. And as for commentators quoted in Kidder's article who noted that the plane didn't crash, as if that somehow validates Jones' actions: they represent the nadir of ethical analysis. Michael Jackson's son didn't slip out of his grasp and dash his brains on the pavement when the "King of Pop" dangled him out of a window, either, but that doesn't make Jackson's actions any more responsible or less outrageous. Jones' actions selfishly and irresponsibly put others at risk. The fact that nobody died as a result doesn't make his actions any less unethical.

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