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The desperation for resolution is so keen that the idea that technology could somehow, even now, reconnect the lost with their loved ones is seized upon -– only to be debunked by clearer heads.
One answer: We don’t know whether all the phones were seized and disabled, if this was a hijacking. Another: phones can track us in our normal life because we‘re operating right at ground level, and in places designed to offer phone coverage. At airliner-flight levels, 35,000 feet in the case of this plane, and at airliner speeds, there usually is no coverage. (Try to make a call from 30,000+ feet on your next cross-country flight.) At any altitude there is usually no coverage over open water or in remote, jungle, mountain, or desert areas, which describes most of the path of this flight. More in a good AP explainer here.
A: Yes, considerably. For one thing, most airlines require passengers to turn their phones off or at least put them in airplane mode before takeoff. That means there’s no connection to a cellular network, says Blasi. Even if some passengers left their phones on during Flight 370, it would be tough for their phones to connect with a tower given the speeds planes travel at and the altitudes involved.
It’s true, smartphones in the air can connect with cell towers on the ground. These towers, depending on technology (GSM, CDMA), have a range of connectivity that goes up to miles. GSM tops out at about 21 miles. Plus, it only takes one tower to achieve connectivity.
A recent Consumer Electronics Association Study reported that 30% of flyers forget to power-down their devices during take-off and landing. So it’s fair to assume that at least some small percentage of flight MH370 passengers may have had their phones on for the duration of the flight. It’s also possible that others powered up their phones when the plane diverted course.
Of course, when you’re flying on an airplane, said tech and wireless analyst Jeff Kagan, “you’re connecting from cell tower, to cell tower, to cell tower very quickly,” and that’s assuming you’re flying relatively low and over densely populated cities.