Ina Fried notes a study showing that there might be some truth to the notion that your cell phone could interfere with a plane’s navigational system:
According to a confidential study unearthed by ABC News, a study by the International Air Transport Association trade group found some 75 incidents of potential interference reported between 2003 and 2009. The involved interference with everything from flight controls, to navigation to communications systems. The type of device suspected of causing interference varied, though the most commonly cited likely troublemaker was the cell phone.
Personally, I think this is all a load of crap. First, because words like “likely troublemaker” and “potential interference” abound, and the fact that 75 incidents over 7 years is not a high number (and certainly not a high enough number to call a real sample). There’s just nothing conclusive there, and it seems to me that there’s nothing new being reported.
I also, however, think it’s a load of crap after a conversation I had last night about the real reason we’re asked to turn our phones off. I was flying from New York to Ohio, and spent just shy of three hours talking to the flight attendant while we sat on the tarmac waiting for who-kn0ws-what to happen so we could take off. At one point, I asked about the cell phone thing, because I needed to text Claire, who was picking me up, and tell her that I wasn’t going to be landing for 400 years or so, and I wanted to know if it was okay for me to ignore the announcement that had already been made.
His response was both confident and fascinating. He told me that the reason we’re asked to turn off our phones has nothing to do with interference. The problem that arises when you’re on your cell phone (or any other electronic device, really, especially those involving headphones) is that if there were an emergency, or the captain needed to disseminate information quickly, Guy Chatting on His Phone is both not going to pay attention because he’s on the phone, and he’s going to be talking over the captain and therefore making it harder for other passengers to hear.
This is a guy who’s been working on planes for 20 years, and he told me stories of booking hotels while the flight is heading downward, of having contests to see who’s phone held service at the highest altitude, and all sorts of other stories. And he was positive: your phone will not cause interference issues on the plane. But you should turn it off, for your sake and everyone’s.