Ignoring in-flight mobile bans: a piracy issue

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.
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor

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.

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