Ah, so it was all bullshit?

This is long overdue:

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says electronic devices such as mobile phones can be left switched on during flights.

EASA says that electronic devices do not pose a safety risk.

The restriction on using mobile phones was almost as stupid as the requirement to turn off “electronic devices” during taxi, take-off, and landing.  If any aircraft, ever, had displayed the slightest sign of inteference from a mobile phone or other device, the whole fleet would have been grounded immediately.  The “because it may interfere with the aircraft’s navigation system” was a lie, pure and simple.

It came about, in my opinion, due to a confluence of several things which can be observed separately elsewhere.  The first is the phenomenon whereby people feel empowered by a uniform and delight in telling other people what to do, even if this means causing them unnecessary inconvenience.  Pilots have always overestimated their own speciality: modern aircraft are not like those of two or three generations ago, and pilots are simply too numerous for the job to be that difficult.  They do an important job, and you’d want a good one to be at the yoke if something went wrong, but the manner in which they like to portray themselves belongs to an era which has long since passed.  And nothing reinforces their sense of authority more than ordering passengers around in the name of “safety”, not even the tedious reminders that “this is a non-smoking flight” (the last of which took place around 16 years ago, at least in the US) and pointless information regarding the aircraft’s speed and altitude.

Then you have the trolley-dollies who, having to put up with shit from passengers for most of the flight, enjoy nothing more than to harangue them during the fleeting moments they have some authority.  I’ve noticed they’ve even taken to ordering passengers to remove headphones during take-off and landing, no doubt citing the importance of passengers being able to hear announcements in the event of an incident.  Although any passenger who is unaware of an announced incident during take-off or landing is almost certainly unconcious or dead, and not merely listening to music.

Coupled with this is the dumbfuck, luddite mentality amongst most people who lack the basic scientific knowledge to laugh in the face of anyone who says an iPod will interfere with the correct functioning of an aircraft.  Aircraft are constantly bombarded by all sorts of electromagnetic waves, particularly during taxi, take-off, and landing when they are near the airport and other aircraft, who are all communicating with one another.  To the degree that any component of the aircraft could be unduly influenced by electromagnetic radiation – and this is doubtful – the device and its cables would be shielded.  An iPod would produce some electromagnetic radiation, but this would be almost undetectable without specialist equipment set up right next to it.  It is simply impossible for an iPod to interfere with a plane’s equipment.  But most people lack any kind of technical knowledge and, in the fashion of Pavlov’s dogs, simply nod dumbly when somebody in a uniform tells them to do something vaguely to do with technology – even if the person in the uniform is employed primarily on looks.  I particularly hate the request to switch off “all electronic devices” because its ludicrously broad criteria makes it impossible to comply with.  My watch is electronic.  How do I turn it off?

It’s bullshit masquerading as safety compliance, and I hear enough of this in my own industry.  Mobile phones are banned on all operational sites where hydrocarbons may be present, yet there is not a single example, anywhere, of a mobile phone causing a spark.  Mythbusters tested this to death and couldn’t get a solitary spark out of a mobile phone; they also couldn’t get aircraft instruments to react to a mobile phone, either.  Of course, most people will say “well, if it makes us safer, even by a little bit, then it is not too much to ask”, and indeed they do say this.  And they know nothing about risk, and even less about people’s actual preferences: if it wasn’t too much to ask, the stewardesses wouldn’t need to check, would they?

I can see why they banned mobile phones: airlines simply didn’t want the hassle and complaints associated with people taking on phones on an aircraft, so they came up with some safety bullshit as a way to enforce compliance.  But now technology has advanced to the point that money can be made from people making calls on flights, the regulations prohibiting phone use have magically disappeared.

This is welcome, but it’s a shame they had to bullshit us for two decades in the first place.


22 thoughts on “Ah, so it was all bullshit?

  1. Read somewhere that most planes have at least one passenger who forgets to turn off their phone. If that’s the case we would have seen carnage if they really did cause interference. And surely, the incoming signal from the phone masts would have brought down planes anyway, even if we all turned off everything, every time.

  2. I notice that more and more people just ignore the no-phones instruction in hospitals: even people bellowing down their mobiles in parts of the hospital where there is no signal. What can it mean? Are they talking to God?

  3. All completely true, but I rather liked the rule as it prevented those narcissists, who like to conduct their business in front of everyone else, from inflicting their one-sided conversations on me for the entirety of the flight.

  4. @dearieme,

    I notice that more and more people just ignore the no-phones instruction in hospitals

    Yes, that was another restriction based on voodoo science, lies, and general bullshit.

  5. @Recusant,

    I agree, I don’t fancy being on a plane with people talking on their mobiles. It was the instruction to turn off my Kindle that really drove me nuts.

  6. So, bad flight somewhere then? 🙂
    Bet it was with Air France. Fuckers have written off nearly every aircraft type they’ve gotten their hands on so far, Concorde included.

  7. A guy from ETSI once explained to me one good reason why you want passengers to switch off their cell phones. It has nothing whatever to do with the plane. If you have a hundred plus cell phones travelling at 200+mph while the plane is coming into land then the continual roaming from one cell tower to another will drive the cell base stations nuts. At a busy airport (say Heathrow or Frankfurt) where you have planes landing every couple of minutes you’d be continually hammering the base stations on the approach with changes (and if you have planes circling then it’s even worse)

    Apparently thanks to pico and femtocells and 4G and stuff (and moores law) base stations can now handle this kind of roaming which they couldn’t do a decade or two ago.

  8. Fuck me, if air travel wasn’t excruciatingly uncomfortable and irritating enough, we’re going to have to sit next to people having inane conversations on phones talking their mates through take off and landing.

    “Ooh look! I can see your house! Can you see our plane? Wave! Wave!”

    Time to get my Oceanmaster qualification and sail everywhere from now on, I suspect.

  9. @FrancisT,

    That’s a very good point, and might explain why the restrictions in cell phone use in the USA came (as far as I know) under FCC not FAA.

  10. @TNA,

    I quite agree. My main beef isn’t the banning of the mobile phones on flights, it’s the citing bullshit safety reasons for what is essentially a crew and (partial) passenger preference. I couldn’t give a shit what the crew want – they’re not the customer – and if passengers want mobile-free flying then airlines should offer this and see what the uptake is. There’s no need to threaten people with a bullshit law in order to manage the problem of passengers being annoyed with others talking on mobiles. It sets a dangerous precedent, because the public is already skeptical about a lot of “safety” based legislation – seeing it as method of control and/or making money – and hence not getting their full cooperation. When it matters, the authorities might find the public slow to respond.

    But that’s nothing compared to how pissed off I get at being told to turn off my Kindle…

  11. @PeteC,

    I don’t fly anywhere near as much as I used to, but a couple of years ago I flew with Air France enough to get Platinum tier – and yes, they were crap. I flew with them between Paris and Hong Kong, what I thought would be a flagship route, and we were put on some old crappy aircraft which was falling to bits. I was in business class and so the tickets were a few grand at least, and the bloke next to me found his seat didn’t recline: all the electronics were shot. He spoke to the stewardess and, because the plane was full, he just received a very Gallic shrug. This wouldn’t happen on Qatar Airways.

  12. FrancisT: that makes sense, and using pre-4G cellphones during the flight would have been impossible anyway because of the fast switching from tower to tower. But once you’ve landed, they still keep you from turning on your phone until they open the door. It’s not enforced by all airlines but BA and Lufthansa used to be strict about it. My late colleague and one-time boss, a veteran English telcos analyst, almost got himself in big trouble when he started explaining to a flight attendant – probably in a tone of aristocratic superiority – that not letting passengers use mobiles after landing is completely nonsensical.

  13. “probably in a tone of aristocratic superiority”

    They’re the best tones, especially when dealing with a bunch of primitives. Like Lufthansa staff.

  14. Yes, as I’m sure you know I agree entirely with the bullshit rules rant.

    Lufthansa, of course, is an acronym…..


    …. I’ll get me coat

  15. Tangential to the subject at hand, but in Japan a few years ago I found out that you aren’t allowed to use mobile phones on their bullet trains. Does anyone know if there is any technical reason (genuine or fictional) for this, or is it just so passengers can be spared listening to other people’s inane one-sided conversations? The Japanese are after all a notoriously polite people.

  16. I was told once that phones would interrupt internal communication systems – think of the buzzing you get when a mobile is next to a desk phone during a conference call for example.

    Always liked the fact that Emirates were never too strict with the ‘devices off’ rule and for ages have allowed people to switch on their phones once the plane has landed. It never made sense sitting in a plane where every seat has a networked computer in the back of it to have to switch off my Kindle.

  17. @squawkbox,

    I’d guess it was to do with politeness. It wouldn’t be like the Japanese to ban something because of technological difficulties!

  18. @Chris,

    I was told once that phones would interrupt internal communication systems – think of the buzzing you get when a mobile is next to a desk phone during a conference call for example.

    I heard people say this, including pilots. I think it’s bullshit: firstly you’d need to have the phone pretty close to the speaker – conference phones work fine with dozens of mobile phones within the >2m range, only at about 1m away does it start to be a problem and no passenger is that close to the pilot. And if this was a genuine problem, they’d shield the wires.

    Always liked the fact that Emirates were never too strict with the ‘devices off’ rule

    Ah, but Emirates are out on a limb in treating passengers as customers, as opposed to cattle. The non-Middle Eastern and Asian airlines have never quite gotten over the fact that flying is no longer a special occasion reserved for a privileged few who board the plane in awe of this new-fangled technology and hence need everything explained to them in a patronising manner.

  19. I know of one incident for a fact, which involves an aircraft coming in to land, having to perform a go-around at least twice. After a short time circling, the Captain exited the cockpit and walked down the aisle until he spotted a lady chatting on her mobile, upon which he leaned over and told her to “turn that f*cking thing off right now.” Interference gone, they were able to land.

    Most (decent) airlines now allow use of electronic devices as long as ‘flight mode’ is enabled, but when you consider all modern aircraft position rely on any number beacons, radio signals, radar and God knows what else to operate safely, it’s hardly knee-jerk to prohibit 300 people on your aircraft to start looking for a network or texting their partner for a lift.

    Here’s a good article you should read. http://www.airspacemag.com/how-things-work/turn-off-that-phone-5577574/?no-ist.
    You should probably also look at RTCA/DO-294C.

    No, it ain’t bullshit. Nor has it ever been. And despite what a lot of people might think, they’re not so important that they can’t be out of contact for a few hours.

  20. Billybob,

    What that article you’ve linked to actually says is that there have been occasional unexplained problems, that pilots like to blame passengers’ devices for those problems, and that more than half a century of research has failed to find any evidence that the pilots are correct.

  21. Squander Two has beaten me to it on the article: full of ifs, buts, and maybes concluded with “let’s just assume it’s the passengers’ fault”. If this phenomenon were real, electrical engineers would be all over it trying to reproduce the results in a lab in order to identify the exact cause, frequency, and affected instruments. That nobody has speaks volumes. And the article explains the real reason why mobile use is discouraged:

    the FCC’s concern is that a mobile phone roaming at 35,000 feet will contact multiple towers at the same time, causing disruptions for ground-based users.

    So, nothing to do with interference with the aircraft. And this:

    I know of one incident for a fact…

    Sounds like one of those great urban myths that always happened to somebody else, but never the guy you’re talking to. It’s bullshit. Firstly, the Captain would simply ask the stewardess to do another check for anyone using a phone: if she couldn’t find the user, how come he could? Secondly, it’s unlikely he would leave his seat during an approach to hunt down a phone user, presumably on the grounds that he is unable to land the plane. Thirdly, this story would have made the international news if the pilots genuinely couldn’t land the plane.

    but when you consider all modern aircraft position rely on any number beacons, radio signals, radar and God knows what else to operate safely, it’s hardly knee-jerk to prohibit 300 people on your aircraft to start looking for a network or texting their partner for a lift.

    Without a demonstrable effect and a quantification of the risk, then knee-jerk is precisely what it is. If the plane cannot operate safely with a mobile phone nearby, then the design of the plane is seriously flawed.

  22. I broadly agree.

    Except it wasn’t airlines calling this. It was probably some bureaucrat or politician who heard about a theoretical risk of interference.

    Which political or bureaucrat wants to risk making the wrong call? What if an airliner crashed and it was their fault? So not wanting to ‘risk it’ they ban it all.

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