Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Aeroplane mobile switch-off ruled by fear of the unknown

Last week we learned that Mark Dreyfus, Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Australia, was recently involved in ''an incident'' on an airplane.

Dreyfus was travelling from Sydney to Brisbane in late April.  He refused to turn off his phone as the aircraft prepared for take-off.  Given that this is a clear breach of airline policy and air safety regulations, the captain called the Federal Police, and the police met him at the gate.

The Daily Telegraph reported the story here.  It's pretty embarrassing.  But let's set aside what this sequence of events reveals about his character and his attitude to the law.

There's a more interesting story here.

It's pretty likely the Attorney-General wasn't the only person on that Sydney to Brisbane flight trying to furtively check their emails.  Mobile phones are used on airplanes remarkably often.

Data on this is hard to come by.  But surveys of frequent flyers always show mobile phone use is common.  The best evidence we have is one study of 37 American flights in 2003.  The study found there were between one and four surreptitious phone calls made on each flight.  And that was 10 years ago.  Our personal electronic devices are much more capable and indispensable now.

Does this chronic law-breaking make flying more risky?  Almost definitely not.

Electronic devices are strictly regulated on aircraft not for technical reasons, but sociological ones.  Their control says more about how humans cope with uncertainty than it does anything about technology.

On the face of it, the technical argument for the mobile phone ban looks strong.  Electronic devices give off radio frequency emissions.  Sometimes that's intentional — like when we make a call or use the internet.  Sometimes it isn't.  As long as an electronic device is on, it is probably emitting something.

Those radio frequency emissions can affect an aircraft's electronics in two ways.  First, they might interfere with the plane's external antennas.  This is particularly a concern for accidental emissions.  Aircraft systems that are designed to receive flight-related transmissions could pick up noise from all those laptops and mobiles and iPads cluttering the cabin.  Second, deliberate transmissions — phone calls, text messages, going online — could interfere with the avionic systems or poorly shielded cables running through the aircraft.

Compound this with the unpredictability of faulty consumer electronics — that iPhone you dropped in the bath but still kinda works — and the fact that there could be hundreds of devices running at the same time, and that's the argument that regulators have made since the 1960s.

Nice in theory.  Damn hard to prove.  There is no conclusive real-world evidence that phones or tablets interfere with avionics.

And thank goodness, considering how many people actually surreptitiously use their devices in the air.  Or how many people accidentally leave their devices on, whether out of forgetfulness or ignorance.

NASA has a reporting system where pilots and others can confidentially disclose any incidents concerning flight safety.  (Australia has a similar system, REPCON.)  You can read a sample of the NASA reports that mention personal electronic devices here.  What's striking is how few of those reported incidents even imply that a device affected flight systems.

An investigation of the complete NASA data by USA Today found that, between 2001 and 2011, there were just 32 incidents where electronic devices were suspected to have interfered with the aircraft.  This is a tiny number.  There are 70,000 flights in the United States every single day.

And the incidents are utterly speculative.  Boeing tries to purchase the electronic devices that are suspected of interfering with aircraft systems.  But they've never been able to replicate the effects.

In other words, neither regulators nor aircraft manufacturers have been able to demonstrate that mobile phones are dangerous.

Then again, nobody can prove they're not.

Humans don't like uncertainty.  Regulators like uncertainty even less.  This is understandable.  With airplane safety the stakes are very high.  But that uncertainty means they are stubbornly enforcing a law that has no evidentiary basis.

There are other reasons offered for mobile phone restrictions.  Passengers might be annoyed by listening to other passengers' phone calls.  The requirement to turn devices off completely during take-off could act as crowd control, forcing passengers to watch the safety briefing.  These arguments aren't compelling.  We could ban phone calls but allow text messaging.  People ignore the safety briefing anyway.

The mobile phone restriction won't last.  All the theoretical problems with interference can be eliminated by improving aircraft systems.  Cables can be shielded.  Antenna sensitivities can be adjusted.  Yes, doing so is expensive.  But it would be extraordinarily reckless for an airline not to make their systems more resilient.

And if regulators are genuinely worried about the dangers of mobile phone interference, let's hope they're not relying on an ineffective ban.  Ensuring aircraft resilience seems like the most prudent option.

Airlines are already rolling out services that satisfy our electronic addictions.  Lots of carriers now offer in-flight wireless internet access.  Others have even installed a full mobile network in the cabin.  The industry has never been more competitive.  Airlines are always looking for something extra to charge.

Eventually, very important people (Mark Dreyfus) and less important people (everybody else) will be able to check their emails whenever they want.  We just have to wait for regulators to catch up.

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