May 14, 2012

Mobiles and tablets on jets. Hey, just use them

Australia's safety regulator CASA, says it is satisfied with the inability of the country's airlines to enforce bans on the transmit and receive use of personal electronic devices such

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Australia’s safety regulator CASA, says it is satisfied with the inability of the country’s airlines to enforce bans on the transmit and receive use of personal electronic devices such as mobile phones and tablets.

That is the only conclusion travellers could reach after reading this article posted on the Australian Transport Safety Bureau website after a member of the public used its REPCON or voluntary confidential aviation reporting scheme.

The ATSB recently received a confidential report from an airline passenger concerned that passengers were using their 3G mobile devices onboard a flight from Sydney to Melbourne. The report below outlines the passenger’s concerns along with the ATSB’s response and advice to the travelling public.


Report narrative:
The reporter expressed a safety concern about the use of 3G mobile devices onboard a Syd-Melb flight. The reporter, who is a regular traveller, observes that passengers are using these devices more and more frequently, texting and using internet connectivity during flight. The reporter believes that cabin crew do not take this safety matter seriously and often do not adequately warn passengers to turn off electronic devices or that the devices should be in flight mode.

REPCON supplied the operator with the de-identified report. The following is a version of their response:

Cabin safety has advised that a review of our occurrence database from 01/01/11 shows that on over 500 occasions cabin crew have reported the hazard of passengers using their mobile phones and personal electronic devices (PEDs) onboard. It is felt that the sheer volume of reports received in relation to passenger non-compliance with our PED policy illustrates that cabin crew are very aware of the regulatory requirements and company policies on this matter and are very vigilant in ensuring compliance, particularly during the pre-departure preparations as the cabin is being secured for takeoff.

In addition, it’s quite possible that onboard passengers writing text messages are constructing them whilst their phones are in flight mode. It is also not possible for cabin crew to manage passenger use of PEDs during takeoff and/or the descent phase as the cabin crew must be seated. The reports we receive also highlight passenger reluctance and attitudes towards PED usage and the belief it is the operator’s policy and not a regulatory requirement. However, the operator honestly believes the hundreds of reports that come through each year show that our cabin crew take passenger use of PEDs at inappropriate times very seriously.

In addition, the PED policy is currently part of the cabin crew recurrent emergency procedures curriculum and is covered in the “Standard Operating Procedures” section of the training day. The proliferation of PEDs has made the potential much higher for non-compliance but it is not possible for cabin crew to check that all PEDs are switched to flight mode and then off. In this respect cabin crew act in good faith that passengers are compliant, responsible and accountable themselves.

REPCON supplied CASA with the deidentified report and a version of the operator’s response. The following is a version of the response that CASA provided:

CASA has reviewed this matter with internal subject matter experts and has examined the operator’s procedures, CASA is satisfied with the operator’s response.


ATSB comment:
The use of mobile phones and other electronic devices is restricted as they could interfere with vital aircraft navigation systems. Current regulations give aircraft crew the power to prohibit the use of any device which can threaten the safety of an aircraft. It is very important that passengers listen to and comply with announcements from the cabin crew when these restrictions apply.

CASA’s response may well reflect the reality of mass public disobedience on board jets in relation to electronic devices.


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12 thoughts on “Mobiles and tablets on jets. Hey, just use them

  1. NeoTheFatCat

    How do you tell if someone else is validly operating a device in flight mode? I travel everywhere with both my iPhone and iPad. The (sad, pathetic) reality is that I use the iPhone as a media device way more than as a phone. So, if I’m hunched over my iPhone pressing the screen every now and then, how on earth can anyone else tell me that I’m “texting and using internet connectivity during flight”?

    The fact that this apparent use is increasing is simply due to the increasing prevalance of smart phones with all of these capabilities.

    I agree that there is an issue with use during take-off and landing, but my issue is that no-one has adequately explained why the use is forbidden. For example, I like to take (lots) of photos on planes, and take-off and landing is obviously more interesting. But I have been scolded for using a small digital camera (an electronic device naturally). But it’s hard to see how a device that is not emitting anything but local radiation could have an impact.

  2. Socrates

    If we assume (evidently) that the use of 3G mobiles and PEDs on flights is increasing, the obvious question is – is there any evidence that interference with aircraft navigation and instruments in increasing as well? Does it make any difference?

    If ys – theren there is a porblem and we have to fix it. If there is no evidence, then drop the silly rule.

  3. fractious

    And fair enough too. After all, if CASA don’t think that people up the pointy end should be prevented from using phones – even when they’re supposed to be landing the plane – it would be a touch hypocritical to come down hard on the people paying the crew.

  4. bsg

    So, cabin crew are, at least once a day, finding passengers using 3G.

    ZOMG! There must be lots of corresponding “interference with instruments” reports coming from the flight deck – right? The last relevant report was that a Jetstar Captain forgot to turn off his phone on the flightdeck and then attended to it rather than fly the aircraft… yep, even the pilots take the ban seriously.

    Imagine the number of PED’s that are, without their owners knowledge, also attempting to use WiFi/3G sitting in handbags or pockets that are (innocently) forgotten about, but all the while are emitting that nasty interfering radiation.

    I think the last 15 years of pervasive PED use has shown that the risk to flight operations is about zero.

    If there was a real risk to safety, then a simple WiFi/3G detector would have been mandated to test for the presence of emitting PED in the cabin so the risk could be found and removed.

    If there was/is a real safety issue – the policy would not be “we’ll *hope* that passengers remember to turn off their mobile phones”.

  5. TT

    To all Plane Talking forum users,

    Firstly, before everyone jump to the conclusion that engineers had been ultra-conservative and they wanna ban all PEDs just to be safe, there is an (excellent) article written in IEEE Spectrum Magazine back in March 2006 on this subject, based on actual scientific study! It may be a little old (with a lot of different frequency hands being used by PEDs nowadays then back in US in 2006), but nevertheless, it does demonstrate and highlight the issue!

    Unsafe At Any Airspeed?
    Cellphones and other electronics are more of a risk than you think
    By Bill Strauss, M. Granger Morgan, Jay Apt, Daniel D. Stancil / March 2006


    I was fortunate enough to work on an aircraft project back 8-9 years ago, and we knew back then there’s not conclusive evidence to show that PEDs can cause aircraft avionics to malfunction. However, we also knew those doesn’t mean it would never happen – you know need one rouge PEDs emitting radiation that causing avionics malfunction for people to realise that it is preventable – by switching it off in-flight. It is the same reason why no one should use mobile phone inside a petrol station (especially during refuelling). You don’t hear explosion at petrol station cause by spikes from mobile phone on daily news, but you do hear such cause every now and then.

  6. Mark Parker

    There’s a couple of aspects to this worth considering…

    1. Jetstar has proven that the only threat to the aircraft is when that PED is in the hands of a responsible person (like the Captain) on the flight deck – and then the risk is actually really nothing more than catastrophic loss of the aircraft…navigation/electronic systems interference – meh!

    2. I’m a weekly flyer around ANZ and I know each time I open my Mac it’ll tell me there’s 3 or 4 wireless networks available as it finds mobiles and mobile wifi devices switched on inside the aircraft – fact is the threat extends beyond tablets and smart phones and includes the fantastic little devices that now allow you to have your own 5-device hotspot. People forget to turn things off; many flights, every day…

    3. As Ben has reported in previous posts (or linked to elsewhere) the real reason we need to switch off devices like phones and iPod’s is that should something bad happen on take off or landing and we need to evac – we need to be paying attention as every single second counts…

    Personally, I wish the airlines would simply state that “during take off and landing – it’s when bad s**t could happen, so pay attention cause it might just save your life…”

    Seeing as we’re about to land, I best log off now..!

  7. alangirvan01

    There are thousands and thousands of video clips on YouTube, taken from the seats of commercial airliners. Type in the name of any airline you like, many Australian carriers are there. Some of the videos show the Safety Demonstration – the CAbin Crew surely must be able to see the cameras. Of course there are may professional videos made on the Flight Decks of many airlines – do those High level cameras emit any harmful signals?

  8. Treenan

    I’m reminded of the signs that you see when entering a hospital or any medical facility, warning that mobile phones must be switched off “as they can interfere with delicate medical equipment”. This is based, no doubt, on the fact that patient and visitor phones are constructed differently to doctor and nurse phones, which are switched on all day.

  9. nonscenic

    The real reason why radio transmitting devices are proscribed is related to the old terrorism issue. With most phones having a GPS functionality they could be used to transmit the current position of the aircraft to those with evil intent. Depending upon the satellite constellation at the time and the orientation of the aircraft, it is possible (in offline mode) to track your position using a smartphone.
    Like Neothe FatCat, I too like to take photos out the window and unfortunately the interesting shots are often near take off and landing. It used to be ok in the days of 35mm film cameras but somehow it is hazardous from a digital camera. And what is wrong with leaving smartphones in flightmode during take off and landing if they are not emitting radiation?
    It seems as though legislation needs to catch up with technology in this area.

  10. TT

    nonscenic: your reasoning is off the planet. If you think terrorist will use phone GPS to aid their terrorist act, then they can do it much easier by checking a lodged flight plan, radio calls or even aircraft transponder signals… they can even track “real time” aircraft location from websites nowadays.

    I can recall Cathay Pacific back in the mid-1990’s ban all CD players and Minidisc player use on their flights at all times for fear of electromagnetic interference (it was way before GPS being available for everyday civilian use).

    The issue with PEDs is that there are far too many different PEDs being used by consumers nowadays. There are currently no consumer-level electromagnetic interference standard which being adapted by PED manufacturers (there are such standards for military and aviation use electronics, but they are not cheap to implement effectively on PEDs). Thus, there are no easy method to tell which PED may cause interference, which one does not.

    The reason why airlines allow PED with flight mode to use during other times of the flight is just simply a compromise in pessengers’ conveinence vs the risk it may impose to flight safety. If the aircraft is at 40000 feet and interference occuried, the flight crews would have more time to response to such issue before it becomes dangerous; whereis during take-off and landing the crews had less time (and less margain of error) to deal with it.

  11. nonscenic

    Interesting that Jetstar will be using iPads as their inflight entertainment devices. Presumably they will have their wi-fi permanently “nobbled”. Or are Jetstar “free from interference” in more ways than one? Given the inverse square law of electromagnetic radiation, one would have thought that phones in the cockpit would have been orders of magnitude more likely to interfere with aircraft systems than that of a passenger.

  12. TT

    Nonscenic: please read this article written by John Walton of Australian Business Traveller regarding Jetstar’s iPad entertainment device. Jetstar have actually done quick a fair amount of homework to ensure EM radiation causing by users’ action are avoided (you can argue how foolproof their setup, but credit should be given to Jetstar for their effort to something about it)

    Inside Jetstar’s iPad app and long-life battery case hardware
    By John Walton

    Aircraft avionics are not just confined in cockpit area of an aircraft – they actually located throughout the aircraft, with some below where passenger seats are. Therefore rouge PED in passenger area can be as bad as inside a cockpit.

    BTW, your reference of inverse square law of electromagnetic radiation only applies to a pointed source (i.e. a source which is infinitesimally small). EM radiation from a dipole antenna (similar to a walkie talkie type antenna) follows an inverse cubic law (i.e. attenuation is an much lower than a pointed source). Different antenna design would have different radiation profiles, but they would not follow inverse square law.

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