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Devices on planes: why airlines fear the mobile phone

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So what did I miss?

On Tuesday, Qantas and Virgin Australia made the announcement that, from this week, all passengers will be allowed to use their electronic devices “gate to gate”.

The change applies to all Qantas domestic and international flights and all Virgin Australia domestic and short-haul flights.

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Basically, you can now take a plane flight without once having to switch off your Kindle, iPad, iPod or iPhone and can instead enjoy uninterrupted music, movies or reading material.

Previously, passengers were made to turn off mobile phones, tablets and laptops during takeoff and landing.

The change comes after the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approved applications on Monday from both airlines asking to waive this requirement.

Although welcome, the new rules are by no means groundbreaking; airlines in Europe and the United States already allow for in-flight mobile phone use.

Larger laptops are still forbidden, however, as devices weighing more than one kilogram must still be stowed in the overhead lockers or under seats during taxi and takeoff.

Qantas also suggested in a statement that it is already exploring “extended use of personal electronic devices” for its subsidiary airline, Jetstar, and its regional brand, QantasLink.

Why did this take so long?

According to Qantas Domestic chief executive officer Lyell Strambi, the changes have been delayed by “rigorous testing” in order to assess the safety of using devices during takeoff and landing.

“We are confident that these devices are safe to be turned on, but in flight mode, for the duration of each flight,” Mr Strambi said in a statement. 

newdaily_260814_phoneplaneAccording to CASA, the allowances were thanks to advancements in technology that diminished the risk factor of mobile phone use.

The rationale behind the ban has long been that mobile phone signals would cause electromagnetic interference for important plane transmission systems.

While there have been no major incidents in recent years because of mobile phone use, aviation experts say it’s more an issue of distraction and inconvenience.

“It’s not necessarily that a phone can bring down an airplane,” Boeing engineer Kenny Kirchoff told CNN.

“That’s not really the issue. The issue is interfering with the airplane and causing more work for the pilots during critical phases of flight. So when they take off and when they land, those are phases of flight which require a high level of concentration by the pilots.”

Other potentially limiting concerns pertain to the disruption of fellow passengers due to loud phone calls, text messages or online videos.

Have there been any in-flight incidents because of electronic devices?

There may have been in the past, but they are difficult to prove.

A 2003 crash in Christchurch is often cited as an example of how mobile phone interference can lead to an accident, but the cause of the crash – in which eight people died when the plane landed short of the runway – has never been confirmed.

According to the New Zealand Herald, a final report on the accident conducted by the New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission found that the pilot’s own mobile phone could have played a role in causing “erroneous indications”.

Does this mean I can surf the web, make calls or send text messages from my phone?

Unfortunately not. The devices will still need to be switched to “flight mode” for the duration of the journey, meaning they won’t be able to transmit or receive signals using a cellular network.

In the US, Virgin, Delta and United Airlines offer in-flight WiFi services, but that function is yet to be introduced to Australian planes.

Other international carriers offering in-flight internet on some vessels include Lufthansa, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic and Singapore Airlines.

As for text messages and calls, the function is there but it is reasonably limited.

On some Qantas planes, you can use your inflight handset to send text messages for $1.90 each and make calls to other passengers on board the aircraft. You can also make air-to-ground calls, but they’ll cost you $5.00 a minute and you have to use the plane handset.

In a nutshell: Australian airlines still don’t allow you to use your phone as extensively as you would on the ground.

Wait, what’s flight mode?

Flight, or airplane, mode suspends a device’s signal transmission functions.

If your device is switched to flight mode, you can still take photos, play offline games or read content on your device, but you are prevented from sending text messages, making phone calls or using social media. Bluetooth function is also disabled.

On the plus side, flight mode conserves phone battery (although most airlines also now provide charging docks).

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