Airborne phones should be no crime

Rupert Goodwins: The ban on mobile phones in aircraft pleases nobody, so it may be time for it to go.

My pal the pilot was grumbling again. He'd been stuck at the front end of a 737 for two hours in last week's winter wonderland, waiting for people in snowploughs to plough some snow. He'd kept the engines turning over -- and company rules say that when the engines are on, the passengers can't use their mobile phones.

The passengers saw things differently: was the aircraft going to drop out of the sky? Chance would be a fine thing. Mobile phones are there to be invoked precisely when the demons of travel hawk the phlegm of delay into the soup of planning. A mild revolt was underway, and the cabin crew were petitioning the pilot to exert his authority via the PA. Pilots rarely like having to actually deal with the self-loading freight that pay their wages, even when isolated by microphone. Hence the grumble: "Don't these people realise those rules are there for a purpose?"

It's a scene repeated in various ways all the time, all over the world. The idea behind banning mobile phones in-flight is simple: it's well known that strong radio signals can disrupt electronic equipment, and high on the list of stuff that shouldn't lose the plot are the bunches of chips and wires that keep several hundred tons of metal, flesh and fuel going in the right direction at thirty five thousand feet. No argument, right? Even when you're on the ground, mobile phones can and have trigger fire sensors and other alarms on the flight deck -- so the rule makes sense. If only it were that simple.

First, the rule doesn't work. Lufthansa has said, in response to a question from the Bluetooth Aviation working group, that on average each of its flights has at least one mobile phone left on. It seems safe to assume that this figure is true for all carriers, at least in Europe, but as yet no serious incident has taken place due to Hans forgetting to discharge his Siemens over Munich. I'm not fastidious in much, but I take aircraft rules seriously and always always turn off my mobile before boarding. Unfortunately, always always turns out to mean around four out of five: a late gate change or some other rush, and it's easy to forget.

Then, what is a mobile phone anyway? Recent visitors to the ZDNet UK labs have included portable gizmos with various combinations of Bluetooth, GPRS, GPS, and 802.11b -- all stuff that can radiate signals (yes, even GPS receivers count) and are banned in the air. It's a fair bet that some people who buy this stuff won't be too clued up about turning off the radioactive bits, and that the cabin crew won't be adept at spotting which latest gadget has what wireless networking built-in. So unless you ban all electronic devices, you can't ban transmitters.

This is 2003. By 2005, there'll be at least four more classes of radio transmission in everyday use. The world is getting more and more wireless, and the transmitters are getting more and more integrated with the way we normally live. What of Radio Free Intel, the company's ambition to put wireless networking into every chip it makes? How will Mandy Trauleigh-Dulait tell the passengers to stop using that?

In any case, even the airlines are getting in on the wireless variety act. Britannia has exchanged loads of in-flight cabin crew paperwork for laptops with radio networks. Lufthansa is trialling yet another wireless network in flight, this time linking up passengers' own laptops with a satellite Internet service. Even more drastically, Virgin and others are investigating the idea of an in-flight mobile phone base station, letting everyone use their own handsets to make telephone and data calls.

All this aerial activity might sound like a hacker's delight, although we don't recommend you start port-scanning 747s from the ground using Pringle antennae. Pointing long tubes at aircraft may be prone to misinterpretation by people with no sense of humour. But it does show that the airlines and the authorities are relaxed about the interference problem.

In truth, modern aircraft avionics has been designed to shrug off mobile phone radiation. Older stuff is more prone and things can always go wrong, but that's true for many aspects of flying. The crew should be trained to recognise and correct problems as they occur, with or without rules banning mobile phones, and if there are rarely any problems then why have the ban?

The ban as it stands is unnecessary, and will soon become entirely impracticable. There are only two sensible ways forward. Either install wideband radio sniffers at each seat with some sort of alarm system -- a bit like the smoke detectors in the toilets -- to catch people who don't know or don't care about the rule, or give up and accept that we've become inveterate radiators. Of course, the latter would be cheaper, make everyone's life much easier and open the way to some new airborne services: if it's not too risky, and evidence suggests it isn't, it has to be worth considering. And it'd make Captain Grumble much happier next time a couple of snowflakes darken the English sky: a revolution in air travel whose time has come.

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