Is The Green Light For Wireless Internet On Planes Worth Celebrating?

inflight wifi

One of life’s major travel irritations is about to disappear. No longer will flight attendants order you to turn off your tablet, smartphone or iPod when the airliner in which you’re flying is lining up to land.

This follows near-simultaneous decisions by US and European aviation authorities to legalise the use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) from gate to gate. Nervous travellers should be able to listen to soothing music as the plane touches down, while the hard-pressed businessman can use every spare second to finish his powerpoint presentation. Planespotters will be able to snap away through the window as the aircraft taxies in.

The new rules will also allow use of the internet and text messages on wi-fi-equipped airliners. And it has raised fears that a new menace will be unleashed – the business wonk bellowing “I’m on the plane!” down his phone. At the moment, it looks like you’ll be able to use pretty much every function of your smartphone – except voice.

App-driven US inflight w-ifi supplier Gogo is planning a Text & Talk service – but will focus on text (© Gogo)

Gogo

App-driven US inflight wi-fi supplier Gogo is planning a Text & Talk service – but will focus on text

Lots more talking?

But Gogo, a US company that supplies in-flight wi-fi to many US airlines including American, Delta, United and US Airways, is touting an app-based system called, ominously, Text & Talk, which it plans to introduce next year.

Ash ElDifrawi, Gogo’s chief marketing officer, said: “While we see this as more of a text messaging product for commercial airlines in the US, the phone functionality is something that some international air carriers and our business aviation customers are asking for.” Basically, the phone function is pitched at private jet users, and the airlines are unlikely to adopt the “Talk” part of Text & Talk… for now at least.

The European Commission has announced that airlines will be able to offer their passengers internet access via 3G and 4G connections, which will be active above an altitude of 3,000m – so no access until you’re airborne, and no access on final approach.

Airlines such as Norwegian pictured here already have onboard wi-fi facilities (© Norwegian)

Norwegian

Airlines such as Norwegian pictured here already have onboard wi-fi facilities

The Commission’s announcement follows a decision by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to allow the use of personal electronics such as smartphones, tablets and e-readers during all phases of a flight. But bulky devices such as laptops will still need to be stowed during take-off, landing and taxiing, EASA said, as they could slow down evacuations in an emergency.

EASA will issue formal guidance on in-flight use of devices and the use of mobile broadband connections by the end of November. This is expected to be broadly similar to new policies adopted across the Atlantic, and will allow devices to be used at all times in ‘flight-safe mode’.
All change in the air

Last month the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) announced: “Airlines can safely expand passenger use of PEDs during all phases of flight, and the FAA is immediately providing the airlines with implementation guidance. Due to differences among fleets and operations, the implementation will vary among airlines, but the agency expects many carriers will prove to the FAA that their planes allow passengers to safely use their devices in airplane mode, gate-to-gate, by the end of the year.”

If there’s no in-plane wi-fi, devices must remain in ‘flight-safe mode’ under the new FAA rules, so you won’t be able to use them for voice communications or data transmission through mobile networks. However, short-range, device-to-device communication, through Bluetooth for example, will be allowed.

Tablets, smartphones and other devices will be usable from gate to gate, not just at cruising altitude (© American Airlines)

American Airlines

Tablets, smartphones and other devices will be usable from gate to gate, not just at cruising altitude

So why the change? After all, for many years airlines have steadfastly insisted that there has been a risk of PEDs interfering with the aircraft’s systems. Is this now no longer the case, or have the airlines been telling porkies? Worse, have commercial pressures been brought to bear on legislators that could compromise safety?

Safe and secure?

Really, the tide of opinion has simply turned. The evidence that PEDs can endanger flights has always been rather sketchy. Most of it is anecdotal, dating from 10 years ago or more, when mobile phone use started to become commonplace. At the same time, digital systems started to become the norm in airliners. Airliners such as the Airbus A320, with glass cockpits and fly-by-wire systems, started to replace older types, such as the Boeing 727 and 737-200, and the McDonnell Douglas MD-80, with their analogue instruments and mechanical control linkages.

There were reports of instruments giving false readings, which the flight crew believed may have been caused by the use of mobile phones or other devices such as portable CD players. But attempts to replicate these instrument malfunctions in flight tests proved inconclusive. Boeing even bought actual customers’ laptops that it believed had interfered with systems, but could not get the problem to repeat under tests. A more likely explanation was simply teething troubles for the aircrafts’ new systems – bugs that were soon ironed out over many thousands of hours in service.

Is in-flight connectivity going to cause passenger tensions? (© AP Images)

Is all this new in-flight connectivity going to cause passenger tensions?

A different wavelength?

In any case, mobile phones use different frequencies to aircraft communications systems. There is evidence to suggest phones do generate levels of radio frequency (RF) interference, and in extreme circumstances this can cause levels of background noise, making communications between pilot and control tower difficult. But weather conditions can have a similar effect – it’s something pilots are used to.

In the past, authorities have tended to err on the side of caution. In 2006, the US non-profit Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics tested the effects of mobile phones, wi-fi and portable electronic devices on planes for the FAA. It concluded that there was insufficient information to support changing the policies that prevented the use of PEDs. In other words, there was no evidence that these devices could interfere with a plane’s systems, and there was no evidence that they couldn’t.

But the fact remains no airliner has ever crashed as a result of the use of PEDs. And in recent years there has been a growing sentiment among the travelling public that the airlines’ demands to turn off PEDs has no factual basis, especially as the over-arching PED rules encompass non-communicating electronic devices that did not exist at the time the original restrictions were introduced in the 1990s, such as e-readers or iPods.

Devices such as tablets and e-readers weren’t around when the now-scrapped restrictions were introduced (© Getty)

Devices such as tablets and e-readers weren’t around when the now-scrapped restrictions were introduced

Customer always right?

At the same time, the rise in popularity of tablets and smartphones means the public has become addicted to its PEDs – for some business travellers, the ability to get a wi-fi connection at 30,000ft is as important as getting a wi-fi connection in a hotel.

Airlines know they have to offer wi-fi – and the customer is prepared to pay for it. And it seems this pressure has tipped the balance at the administrators on both sides of the Atlantic to relax the rules. And using in-plane wi-fi rather than direct air-to-ground communications solves much of the problem – the aircraft’s crew already communicate with the ground – now the passengers’ data is integrated into the aircraft systems too.

Staying safe?

Perhaps the airlines played the wrong card in the past. Rather than trying to make passengers fearful that their phone could cause the plane to plummet from the sky, there is a perfectly sensible reason why you shouldn’t use some PEDs during crucial parts of the flight, such as landing or take-off, where most accidents happen.

A passenger wearing headphones, immersed in a movie, may not hear safety instructions if there’s an emergency. Of course, the airlines don’t want to spook the passengers into thinking something may go wrong. But common sense should dictate that you remove those ear buds at least when the plane is taking off or landing. Being aware of what’s going on might save your life.

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