Ignoring in-flight mobile bans: a piracy issue

Ignoring in-flight mobile bans: a piracy issue

Summary: It seems that the entitled, technology-savvy passengers of today just aren't scared of their aeroplane dropping from the sky and crashing into a flaming heap.


It seems that the entitled, technology-savvy passengers of today just aren't scared of their aeroplane dropping from the sky and crashing into a flaming heap.

This morning, Crikey pointed out a news item from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which said that its voluntary confidential reporting scheme, REPCON, had received complaints about passengers using their phones for texting and internet during flights from Sydney to Melbourne.

REPCON approached the operator of the flight (without saying which airline it was), and published the gist of the operator's response.

The airline said that its records since the beginning of last year show that its cabin crew have reported passengers using their mobile phones over 500 times, which it felt showed that the cabin crew are aware of the requirements around not operating mobile phones on-board, and are vigilant in ensuring compliance. It also said that the passengers who might have seemed to be sending text messages were perhaps only writing them with the handset in flight mode, and not necessarily sending them.

The most telling comment, however, was this one:

"The reports we receive also highlight passenger reluctance and attitudes towards [personal electronic device] usage, and the belief it is the operator's policy and not a regulatory requirement," the airline said.

That is, even though cabin crews take mobile phone bans seriously, the passengers don't. Society's always-on mentality just doesn't allow for the passengers of today to take the "turn off your mobile phone" request to heart.

And given that there are only a limited number of cabin crew for an ever increasing number of passengers on-board, how is the airline supposed to enforce something that is obviously still considered a safety issue?

The ATSB said at the bottom of the report:

"The use of mobile phones and other electronic devices is restricted, as they could interfere with vital aircraft navigation systems ...It is very important that passengers listen to and comply with announcements from the cabin crew when these restrictions apply."

The problem is that no one knows whether a plane has ever gone down because someone used a mobile phone; not only are there very few crashes, but aircraft are also such complicated beasts that it's often difficult to pinpoint what has caused a mid-flight event.

Remember the Airbus that suddenly dropped 600 feet (about 190 metres) off the coast of Western Australia in 2008? More than 110 of the 303 passengers and nine of the 12 crew members were injured. The consensus is that a software error caused the drop, but what caused the software error is still uncertain. Mobile phone interference was ruled out in this case, but who's to say it always will be? After all, one theory for the drop is that a "high-energy particle" flew down from space and flipped the ones and zeros in the system. Sounds a bit kooky, doesn't it?

In the end, they just don't know what caused it. There's still so much that we don't understand about science and technology. Although we've become blasé about the risks of air travel, we are still travelling in a metal tube thousands of metres off the ground. If the safety regulators think that we shouldn't use our mobile phones, then it's probably a good idea not to use them.

Yet, as we've seen above, people don't think like that. They see someone else using their mobile, see that the plane keeps on flying and think that the airlines are just overreacting. So they use their phone, too.

Let's think about it like the piracy phenomenon. If users can't access their favourite show because it's too expensive or is provided to them later than it airs in the US, they pirate it. Similarly, if users can't access the internet or call people via an official service, they'll unofficially do it.

Currently, airborne internet and phone calls often aren't available, or are prohibitively expensive. If airlines want to stop people from "pirating" — whipping out their mobile phones when no one is looking — then carriers need to provide a cheap, viable alternative that provides a service on their own terms, and that they believe won't affect key systems. And not just to the business elite, but to the cattle class, too. This would mean cutting into the margins that the airlines are hoping for by offering a premium service to provide access to Wi-Fi, however, could stop rogue mobile use.

The question is: will airlines think safety, or the bottom line? Unfortunately, we already have the music and film industries to show us the answer.

Topics: Mobility, Travel Tech

Suzanne Tindal

About Suzanne Tindal

Suzanne Tindal cut her teeth at ZDNet.com.au as the site's telecommunications reporter, a role that saw her break some of the biggest stories associated with the National Broadband Network process. She then turned her attention to all matters in government and corporate ICT circles. Now she's taking on the whole gamut as news editor for the site.

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  • "There's still so much that we don't understand about science and technology."

  • "There are no knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know."
    -- Donald Rumsfeld
    • And there are things about Donald Rumsfeld that we wish we didn't know!
  • I think it is known by most passengers that phones are allowed on some flights around the world.. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_phones_on_aircraft#Europe

    Considering this is reasonably well known I dont think many people take it seriously.
  • Really? People can't go 1.5 hours without using their phone? A flight from Sydney to Melbourne takes about 1.5 hours, can people really not survive without their phones for that long? If they can't then I think they need help, maybe some help from a surgeon to have their phone surgically removed from their ear.

    I accidentally left my phone at home last week and I survived the day without it. I'm still alive, the world didn't come to the end, the earth is still spinning and rotating around the sun.
    • If they can manage it for cigarettes, they can manage it for phones.
    • With that logic, we can do away with food and drinks on flights as well.
  • This business about interference to aircraft systems in absoulte rubbish. Firstly, the ban on using mobiles came in pretty much the same time as mobiles first appeared. The carriers, such as Telstra, fretted because the last thing they needed was a bunch of mobiles, flying over a bunch of mobile tower systems, as 500mph. The mobile system did not know what to do when you have a mobile that can see so many towers. It is designed so that you should only see a few at best. So in cahoots with the airlines, and their slobbering proxy, CASA, they made this policy. But it was also in the airlines interest too. Think about when you travel on a plane. It is relatively quiet, little drama and the like. The last thing they need was a passenger getting antsy on a plane after having a call. They want you to act like a bunch of puppy dogs. So it worked for them too. You all know those funky green headphones that most of the pilots use ? You can get an authorised attachment that allows a connection to a .... mobile !! And finally, if it was such a big issue then they would also apply such a policy to private aircraft !!! That's right, it doesn't apply to Julia Gillard's private RAAF taxi !!
    • The "ban" was introduced because passengers were discovering that calls made at altitude weren't being billed properly in the system and Telstra/Optus didn't like the idea of people making free calls.

      Let's not forget the recent near-miss caused because the PILOT was "distracted" by his mobile phone!

      Is there really any place where a mobile phone is less welcome than onboard a plane? Yes, at the f'g movie theater. All new cinemas should be built with Faraday cages to block mobile signals.

      From a purely social behavior perspective, I would like to see mobile phones banned in many more places, just as smoking has been: Trains, restaurants--anywhere that kids are expected to be quiet so should mobile phones, silent SMS excepted.
    • The issue is an EMC (ElectroMagnetic Compatibility). Studies have been carried out where they have decked aircraft with highly sensitive equipment and it was PROVEN that transmitting devices were able to cause detectable interference in the control systems of the aircraft.

      Will the interference be extreme enough to cause problems? no one can say, EMC issue tend to be enourmously complex. In the end it comes down to: can we go without our devices for a few short hours or do we ignore the warnings and potentially place everyone in harm's way?
  • SMS are received perfectly well at 33,000 feet somewhere over northern NSW.
    I know because the guy next to me was getting the notfications.
    The Qantas 767 didn't seem to crash, as far as I can recall.
  • If it was important for these devices to be off, they'd really make you turn them off.
    Not just sleep.
    take out the battery, and check them in after being turned off.

    though, airplane mode is useful on many phones to force a reconnection to the network, wherever you may be, in the air or not.
  • "After all, one theory for the drop is that a "high-energy particle" flew down from space and flipped the ones and zeros in the system. Sounds a bit kooky, doesn't it?"

    High energy radiation can affect low-voltage ICs because the energy can overload the MOS gates, thereby switching the circuits.

    Circuitry for space is radiation hardened to minimise such effects.
  • It's a piracy issue!!
  • Even if I believe the airlines about this (which I don't), I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why I need to switch my device in flight mode off for takeoff and landing. (Sometimes half an hour before landing!). Even my Kindle, which uses less power than my wrist watch. I just don't get it, and I don't like being lied to, or treated like an idiot.
  • Oops - edit - "why I need to switch *OFF* my device, which is in flight mode for takeoff and landing. Talking about being an idiot, haha.

    If it's in flight mode then there should be no problem whatsoever.
  • Its amusing watching people diligently turn off their phones - then pull out the laptops and tablets mid flight and leave the bluetooth and WiFi transmitters merrily seeking. The number of times you walk up the aisle and see the little blue LED for 'networking enabled' shining bright...

    Most execs don't know how to disable the networking radios on their laptops.
  • The article appears to be written by someone not at all well-versed in technology. I also find the whole "piracy" metaphor very ill-fitting.

    There are numerous interesting comments over here that illustrate why the whole "no electronic device thing" is pure BS. Unless someone walks in a with a decently powered jammer or stuff of that calibre, I fail to fathom how it can result in a catastrophic disaster. I'm guessing the avionics in airplanes would have a high degree of fault tolerance even in the event of minor glitches.
    • I find the article so have no such flaw, and find "piracy" metaphor quite fitting. Either the industry comes up with a solution that appeals to the masses or the people will use the non-authorized method - ie. our phones.

      On the other hand, I have no idea what you're on about with your decently powered jammer or stuff of that calibre.
  • Here's the thing: 99.44% of the time, nothing will happen. But, let's say your mobile has a problem; not one that you notice, but a problem where it generates a radio signal right on the frequency of the aircraft's communications with ATC. Now, this may appear unlikely, or even improbable, but let me assure you that stranger things have happened. I do electronics design for a living and have had some experience with interference suppression and RF design. Just because your mobile bears a little tag that says it complies with all radio emission regulations (pre-printed on the case at manufacture time), doesn't mean that your particular device was built correctly, hasn't had a component failure or been dropped. That certification says nothing more than that one or two sample devices were tested and didn't show any interfering signals.

    So, when the aircrew ask me to turn off my electronic devices, I do. Because you just can't be 100% sure. And when the pilot's trying to land or take off, and avoid all the other aircraft (and the ground); I'd like to give him every chance of success. Turning my electronics off seems like the least I can do to increase (however slightly) my chances of getting where I'm going in one piece.