Jury out on phones and fly­ing


Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - JOHN NAISH

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.

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