You can leave your screen on: how CASA’s mobile call took flight

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday August 27, 2014

We always doubted leaving the phone on for takeoffs and landings had any impact on the plane. But what did it take for the nation’s air regulator to finally give the green light?

From this week, passengers on Qantas and Virgin Australia flights can keep their electronic devices on “from gate to gate” after a ruling by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. (It has to remain in flight mode, and any device weighing one kilogram or more will be subject to normal cabin baggage rules — stowed in the overhead locker or under the seat in front of you during takeoff, landing and turbulence.)

Airlines in Europe and the United States were allowed to relax their rules in the same way earlier this year. The change reflects improvements in the manufacture of both aircraft and the typical electronic devices that passengers carry, a CASA spokesperson told The Mandarin:

“The consideration of this has been kicking around for some years, because people started realising that newer generation aircraft had a lot of electronic shielding built in, and modern devices like mobile phones operate on lower power than the older ‘brick’ type ones, so the risk appeared to be lower …

“The ban on devices goes back to when no aircraft manufacturer had dreamed of mobile phones, and there were anecdotal reports emerging that uncommanded things had happened in aircraft systems, and the pilots couldn’t explain it apart from someone using a mobile phone up the back. There was a potential risk, so the solution was to eliminate the risk.”

Aviation regulators in the US and Europe completed fact-finding processes last year, confirming that modern electronic devices pose an acceptably low risk to modern aircraft. CASA reviewed the decisions made by overseas regulators and came to the same conclusions, before developing its own recommendations on cabin safety issues.

Aviation regulations did not specifically forbid the use of electronic devices at any particular time, but simply require that aircraft be “operated safely”. The now widespread demand for uninterrupted use of devices in flight led CASA to provide guidance to airlines on how to allow it safely.

While it may seem like a simple change, CASA says there was a “fair bit of work behind it”:

“We had to address a whole range of issues from cabin safety briefings to ensuring no cords are impeding the egress of people from the cabin, and we did some work calculating the risk of injury from devices depending on their weight — that was how we decided that one kilogram was the appropriate weight.”

The approvals given to Qantas and Virgin follow a revised Airworthiness Bulletin issued on August 22, which advised airlines on a systematic process to assess their aircraft’s resistance to interference from personal electronic devices and highlighted that, these days, the biggest danger from personal electronic devices is physical:

“Experience in Australia and other countries has identified that PEDs can be a significant hazard if not secured in certain phases of flight or in cases of turbulence. Injuries have been reported by passengers being struck by PEDs during turbulence events.”

Passengers could use their devices to connect to a wi-fi network if Australian airlines decide to offer the service in future as some overseas carriers do.

Pilots have been able to use tablet computers during take-off and landing — as part of “electronic flight bags” — since 2012.

CASA’s director of aviation safety, John McCormick, is in his final week at the helm of the regulator and a successor is yet to be announced. A spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told The Mandarin “the government should be making an announcement in the near future”.

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