What's happening to inflight device use?

CHARLIE MITCHELL
Last updated 14:46 29/04/2014
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It's a ritual travellers are familiar with - the furious texting in the seconds before take-off, the forlorn expressions when e-readers are turned off under the flight attendant's watchful eye.

But while airlines around the world are relaxing their approach to the use of electronic devices on aeroplanes, New Zealand's carriers probably won't be joining them any time soon.

Air New Zealand said it was unable to change its policy due to restrictions placed on it by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which governs airlines here.

"[The] CAA doesn't currently allow the use of electronic devices during either take-off or landing. However, it seems probable that the CAA will adopt a similar approach taken within the United States by the FAA," a spokesman said.

Last year the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), which governs airlines in the US, removed its ban on the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) in flight.

Following the announcement, all major US airlines chose to allow "gate to gate" use of PEDs. The European Aviation Safety Agency followed suit.

Air New Zealand said it was in the process of looking at the steps required to implement change in the future.

A Jetstar spokesman said banned electronic device use during take-off and landing. It had no immediate plans to change.

"We are always interested in regulatory developments that could benefit passengers and we will remain in close dialogue with our regulators on this matter," he added.

CAA said its rules did not prohibit the use of PEDs, as long as airlines could determine they didn't interfere with aircraft systems.

"Under the current rules airlines can allow the use of transmitting portable electronic devices and non-transmitting portable electronic device (such as a Kindle) if the airline has determined that it does not interfere with aircraft systems," a spokesman said.

"The CAA does not therefore believe there is any need to change the current rules."

Though Air New Zealand and Jetstar still prohibit use of PEDs, the CAA said its existing rules were similar to those recently instituted in the US and allowed the airlines to change their policy.

"The recent changes in FAA regulations mean the rules in the US are now very similar to ours, which have been in place for some time.

"Airlines must demonstrate, through rigorous testing, that the use of such devices will not interfere with aircraft systems during critical phases of flight. The FAA also requires that airlines undergo a similar, rigorous testing process."

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Until airlines could categorically prove to the CAA that electronic devices would not pose a risk to passenger safety, New Zealanders would remain among the dwindling number of people worldwide who could not use their electronic devices during take-off and landing.

Is there really anything to worry about?

EXPERT OPINION

The FAA in the US chose to relax its policy based on the recommendation of a high-level advisory board made up of pilots, manufacturers, and representatives from the technology industry.

The 28-member board could not find conclusive evidence that consumer electronics posed any risk to passenger safety.

PILOT OPINION IS MIXED

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) maintain a database that allows pilots to report incidents involving the use of PEDs on their flights.

Most of the reports centre around the social problems of PEDs; belligerent passengers defiantly using their phones, harassing flight attendants, or disrupting fellow passengers by making phone calls.

But some pilots speculated that PEDs were causing mechanical problems that made their jobs more difficult.

One reported an incident where they were unable to engage the autopilot due to electromagnetic interference. After flight attendants asked passengers to check if their devices were turned off, the problem disappeared.

The pilot said in their report "had this happened during an approach in IMC conditions (bad weather), it would have been more serious. The travelling public needs to be made aware that PED use during flight is a serious concern."

Another pilot reported an incident where the plane's compass system malfunctioned, taking them several miles off course. The fault was attributed to a passenger's iPhone; when it was switched off, the problem disappeared. The pilot reported "similar events in the past" that they believe were caused by PEDs.

Similarly, a report by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) documented 75 incidents of electromagnetic interference that pilots attributed to electronic devices.

Neither the reports from NASA or the the IATA could confirm the incidents were caused by PEDs.

Many passengers admit to leaving their PEDs on during a flight - something that is impossible for flight attendants to universally enforce.

A 2013 study by the Consumer Electronics Association found 30 per cent of airplane passengers admitted to accidentally leaving their device on during the flight.

Planes fly every day with PEDs switched on in the cabin - yet apparently no air accident has been linked to the usage of an electronic device.

It took a matter of days for some US airlines to prove to regulators their planes were not at risk of electromagnetic interference.

- Stuff

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