Mobile phones clear for take-off?

A few months ago I commented on some of the technical developments in passenger in-flight systems (‘In-flight Internet access…and mobile phones too?’). In recent weeks, there have been some rapid developments, not on the technical front, but in terms of regulation and operation, with announcements from the UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom and the European Commission.

On the 26th March, Ofcom published the results of its consultation on the use of Mobile Communications on Aircraft (MCA). The executive summary summarizes the findings and Ofcom’s decisions, but the full statement (PDF) provides much more detail, revealing a mixture of social, operational, safety and security issues.

The social issues which revolve around the acceptability of using a mobile phone in-flight, seem to have been brushed aside in the following statement:

3.9 Ofcom also understands the concerns expressed about peace and quiet on aircraft and the potential for mobile phone users to annoy other passengers. However we note that in similar cases which can lead to annoying behaviour, for example serving alcohol on board aircraft, it is a matter for aircraft operators to decide how to balance the services they offer to their passengers with the impact that they have. The airline industry is a competitive market and consumers generally have a choice between carriers: the provision of MCA services, and approaches to mitigating any annoyance, like quiet zones or quiet periods, could become part of the marketing differentiation between airlines. Further, Ofcom considers that UK consumers could be disadvantaged if MCA services were not permitted.

The comparison between serving alcohol and mobile phone use is unconvincing, because a passenger sitting in the next row having a drink is not likely to affect me unless they are drunk and unruly, whereas a passenger whose mobile phone and then talks loudly (to be heard over the background noise of the aircraft) will affect (i.e. annoy) me – I suspect a comparison between smoking in-flight and using mobile phones in-flight would have been more appropriate! For a more considered view on the social issues, I’d recommend Clive James’ eloquent article ‘I’m on the plane… the PLANE‘ (BBC Magazine).

The operational and safety issues are inter-related in some cases. For example, the proposed use of mobile devices is intended for use only above 3,000m altitude, and should be switched off during take-off and landing. However, once passengers become aware that mobile phones can be used at all on some flights, they are likely to become even more cavalier than they are at present (for example, on a recent return flight from San Francisco, a lady sitting across the aisle from me was using her BlackBerry  crackberry for email and phone calls while the plane was taxiing and only switched it off just before takeoff). Passengers probably won’t distinguish between aircraft that have pico cells for mobile phone calls, and those that don’t – the latter resulting in the mobile phone transmitting on increasing power levels in an attempt to connect to a base station, and thus increasing the risk of electromagnetic interference with aircraft electronics. These issues still need to addressed to the satisfaction to the UK CAA and EASA before mobile phones can be used in-flight over the UK and the rest of Europe respectively.

Some of the individual responses in the Ofcom consultation raised a number of security issues, however the Ofcom response was that this is responsibility of the DfT’s Transport Security Branch but I couldn’t find a responses or policy on mobile phone in-flight use on the Department for Transport’s website.  The situation seems somewhat different in the US, where the Department of Homeland Security is openly opposed to the use of mobile phones in flight on security grounds (‘Why US Airlines Still  Won’t Join the Mobile Mile High Club‘).

The European Commission announcement (BBC News) makes it clear that the regulations not only allow for mobile data and text messaging services (which has been the focus of the recent trials by Airbus and Quantas), but also for both incoming and outgoing voice calls. Whilst the mobile network operators and airlines seems to be falling over themselves to introduce this technology, I can’t help wondering whether this is what passengers actually want? It looks like I’m going to need to carry extra batteries for my Bose noise canceling headphones…