Jury out on phones and flying
AS THE long-haul flight from Australia circled over London Heathrow, the giant Boeing 747 shot upwards through the early morning sky, then lurched drunkenly on to its side. It started to dive steeply. But just as quickly as the crisis began, it was over, with the Qantas jumbo’s pilot regaining control. But that near-disaster in September 1998 has never been forgotten by air safety regulators.
Although the exact cause remains a mystery, an official report by Australia’s Bureau of Air Safety Investigation concluded it was most probably a malfunction in the Boeing’s autopilot that may have been triggered by someone on the plane using a cellphone or a laptop.
In the four years before that incident, more than 50 official incident reports had been logged where emergencies were blamed on passengers’ electronic devices. Airliners had suddenly rolled, bounced on landing, or veered off course. There were sudden drops in cabin pressure and spurious messages appeared on pilots’ computers.
Such incidents inspired worldwide official bans on passengers using mobile phones and laptops.
In recent years, the bans have steadily been rolled back, so that in many parts of the world, you can use devices as long as the aircraft is safely flying above 10 000ft.
But official guidelines have continued to ban such devices when airliners are taxiing, taking off and landing, and when flying at low altitudes. Now, however, even those restrictions are starting to be abandoned. British Airways recently announced it was to be the first European airline to let passengers switch on their mobiles and other devices just after landing.
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has said it was satisfied there were no safety risks.
Scientific evidence has piled up over the past 20 years, since the airlines’ governors, the International Air Transport Association, recommended “passengers should not be allowed to use transportable electronic devices during the takeoff and landing phases of flight”.
But after two decades of investigation, still no one really knows for certain what the truth is.
Doubts were cast in 1997, when David Learmount, the safety editor of the commercial pilots’ magazine Flight International, reported that French investigators had submitted an Airbus airliner to blasts of powerful radar “strong enough to fry an egg on the plane”, along with radio transmissions that simulated mobile and other wireless devices.
None of the aircraft’s systems was affected. And engineers at Boeing conducted a four-hour test on a 737, setting up about 20 mobile devices throughout the jet and monitoring the radios, navigational equipment and other controls.
A variety of flight conditions were simulated, nothing was affected. At about the same time, a study of flight records was commissioned by the US. FAA failed to find a single instance in which equipment was disrupted by a phone.
John Sheehan, who headed the study, said that mobiles were regularly used on private and corporate planes “thousands of times every day” without incident.
But concerns persist. In 2002, tests showed that the wireless technology used on the new generation of laptops, called ultra wideband, can interfere with safety systems.
Ultra wideband may also interfere with air traffic control systems that rely on satellite signals.
Official reports linking portable electronic devices with crashes are almost unknown.
But a government investigation into a crash in New Zealand in 2003 which killed eight people found that the pilot’s own mobile phone may have caused erroneous indications on the aircraft’s navigational system. The plane landed short of the runway after the pilot called home and stayed connected during the descent. As recently as 2005, a study by the FAA concluded mobile devices could still interfere with equipment. Globally, passengers are mostly allowed to use mobile devices to text and make calls once the planes are above 10 000ft.
In May, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore was among the first to relax the rules banning mobile devices until an aircraft has stopped moving on the ground. It is now permitted, once the plane is off the runway. Now Britain has decided to follow suit. And the FAA is expected to relax its rules, though not to the extent of allowing passengers to switch on gadgets while the aircraft is on the ground.
At what cost will this be to aircraft safety? The fact is, we do not know. Airlines have to balance their passengers’ ever-increasing desires with the need for flight safety not least because their reputations and their commercial futures are at stake. Clearly, they think they have now achieved the correct balance. Let us all sincerely hope that they are right.
FREEDOM: Some airlines have lifted the ban on using electronic devices such as laptops and cellphones while flying.