Product Focus: Handsets

By Capt. E.R. Hanson Jr. | September 1, 2001
Send Feedback

We live in a time when everyone demands constant communications. People want to stay in contact with their lives. Think of it. Fifteen years ago the cell phone business essentially did not exist. Now cell phones are ubiquitous and so inexpensive that they are frequently given to the customer as an enticement to purchase the accompanying wireless service.

The airline industry considers cell "personal electronic devices" (PEDs), a category that also includes portable items that create, send and receive e-mail, play games and music, display movies, and do whatever else the public demands of them.

As commonplace as PEDs have become, there are several places where the privately-owned variety just will not work well–for example, inside the aluminum tubes we call airplanes. Yes, a passenger can get a signal with his personal phone at seat 4A while the aircraft is on the ground. He might even be able to maintain the signal during the initial takeoff and climb out. But as the aircraft groundspeed increases, the cell technology will fail to switch receiver towers rapidly enough to maintain a continuous receive/transmit handhold, and the passenger’s cell phone will drop the signal.

The dropped signal is one reason not to use a personal phone in a moving aircraft. Another, more serious reason is that the phone may produce harmonic interference with the aircraft avionics equipment. Seat 4A isn’t just a comfortable first-class accommodation; it and the rest of the forward compartment are directly over an electronics equipment bay in the airplane’s belly. Seat 44D is no better a location to use personal phones, for the aircraft’s aluminum skin is veined with cables and wiring bundles, front to back.

The barely detectable electronic pollution that a personal cell phone or other PED produces has a short path to the sensitive navigation, communication and autoflight computers that make modern, high-altitude, high-speed air travel possible. Once the signal is inside the black boxes, it is anyone’s guess what the aircraft will do. The net result is aircraft avionics are potentially compromised.

Still, passengers want to maintain connections to their lives.

Only Show in Town

Airlines can provide that connection through in-flight phones, which in turn, can offer tremendous marketing opportunity to the carriers.

Wistful airline execs banter about the "one extra customer" concept: If they can carry just one extra customer at full fare per flight, then their financial woes would disappear. Advertising battles are waged over that one extra customer. Now communications access might allow the airlines to combat financial woes another way: selling an enhanced service that can produce additional money per customer already on the airplane.

However, just having the in-flight entertainment (IFE) equipment and air phones display real-time stock quotes and TV news shows is not enough. The best new systems will allow interactivity. Much difference exists between entertaining a relaxed mind and informing and engaging an active one. The active mind takes action based on the information received. The aircraft handsets of the future will allow that.

An aircraft handset is not a seatback princess phone. It is a human-machine interface (HMI) that allows productive connectivity with passenger PEDs. The objectives of the HMI include near toll-quality voice, real-time data transfer and intuitive use. To further explain:

  • Toll quality is the level of service that one normally receives over a wired connection, like a pay telephone.

  • Real-time probably doesn’t mean "now," but "close to now." The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines "real-time" for Weather Service purposes as no older than 15 minutes. Real-time stock quotes for TV usually are delayed by seconds.

  • "Intuitive use" means that the customer needs no short course to work the system, which should be as simple as ready, aim, fire.

Of course, if the HMI handset uses a simple plug-your-PED-here portal and a click-here-to-connect-to-the-Internet icon, most "road warriors" will find the interface quite familiar. Accustomed to working their own equipment, their aircraft seats become another workplace.

But what about the parents on vacation who only want to send an e-mail to the kids or confirm a hotel reservation? Next-generation handsets should not leave these cost-conscious travelers wanting since e-mail costs much less than voice on data link.

Current handsets have rudimentary e-mail attributes. New ones will probably interface with the seat IFE screen so that basic "Web TV" services are available.

What About Security?

Passengers should realize that there is no such thing as a private conversation on an airplane. Many airlines use Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) technology to perform air operations center (AOC) tasks. These include retrieving weather data from the airfield automatic weather equipment, getting weight and balance information from the load planner, and staying in contact with the flight dispatcher. Everything that goes through the ACARS pipeline can be intercepted using easily obtainable equipment.

The same might be said about every PED used on an aircraft. An intercept can be made at the ground earth station (GES), along the microwave transfer system, or even by a guy sitting in the back of the same airplane working diligently on his PED. The security measures passengers employ for their ground systems, therefore, should also be used during airborne connections.

Looking to the future, Connexion by Boeing plans to partner with American, Delta and United airlines, and this new service will further improve the communications services provided to airline passengers. To see what you can expect, visit


AirCell Inc.
Air Works
AT&T Wireless Services
BAE Systems Avionics
CMC Electronics Inc.
East Coast Avionics Inc.
Electronic Cable Specialists
Euro-GSM Ltd.
GEC Marconi
GTE Airfone Inc.
Gulfstream Aerospace Inc. 
Hollingsead International Inc.
Inertial Airline Services Inc.
Inmarsat Ltd.
Kollsman Inc.
MORS Technogies E-mail: [email protected]
Rockwell Collins
Stratos Aeronautical
Teledyne Controls
Telephonics Corp.
Thrane & Thrane

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox