Yammering Aloft

By Geoffrey Thomas, Air Transport World – 11/01/2005 – 12:00am


Vendors are convinced they can solve the technical and safety-related challenges that keep mobile phones grounded. But can airlines defuse the social issues?

Japanese politicians have been banned from using them, Italian politicians are having loudspeakers installed under their parliamentary seats to drown them out and many prestigious golf clubs ban them at the entry gate. They are the most annoying thing in our lives and 70% of air travelers say they do not want them on aircraft. They are mobile phones.

Technical challenges aside, if research, experience and surveys are any guide, permitting the use of mobile phones on aircraft could result in a new level of air rage based on some recent incidents. In Thailand, an angry female passenger hurled a cup of hot noodles at a Thai AirAsia flight attendant after being told not to use her mobile phone during takeoff from Bangkok. Vietnam Airlines banned a passenger after she slapped a flight attendant in the face when the attendant tried to stop her from using a mobile on a domestic flight.

At a US Congressional oversight hearing in July, a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to permit the use of cellphones on commercial aircraft received bipartisan criticism, in part because of the annoyance factor. FCC’s approval, however, means little until FAA signs on, something the regulatory agency has refused to do pending further study of the issue of interference with onboard systems.

Patricia Friend, international president of the Assn. of Flight Attendantsrepresenting 46,000 memberstestified at the hearing that mobile phone use on aircraft could have potentially catastrophic effects. “For many years, unauthorized use of cellphones on airplanes has been a significant safety and security concern to flight attendants,” she said. And with recent decisions by several domestic and international carriers to allow use of the phones during taxi-in from the landing runway, flight attendants already are deeply concerned that operational disruptions triggered by cellphone use, such as incidents of air rage, are on the rise.

Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) struck a chord with many travelers when, in opening remarks at the hearing, he said: “The flying public has had to contend with an increasing amount of noise on aircraft from their seatmates, who travel with an array of portable electronic devices like the iPod and GameBoy portable video games.” He continued, “The annoyance issue is by far the most common concern raised by the flying public regarding a possible lifting of the aircraft cellphone ban. Flying has become increasingly inconvenient and stressful for a number of reasons, including rising passenger loads, fears of terrorism, long lines and often-intrusive and irrational screening procedures at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, flight delays and last-minute cancellations, lost baggage, and generally poor customer service by some of the airlines.”

Mediocre Peanuts
Mica noted that many passengers are protective of the solace they feel when they “finally reach their undersized seats and crack open a skimpy bag of mediocre peanuts or pretzels. The last thing most air passengers want is to be forced to listen to their neighbor chat on their cellphone about their ailments, dating problems, the latest reality TV show or up-to-the-minute estimated-time-of-arrivals for the duration of the flight.”

That sentiment is echoed in a multitude of surveys from around the globe. Last year, the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index found that nearly one in three Americans cited the cellphone as the invention they hate the most but can’t live without, beating out the alarm clock and the television in the annoyance stakes. Across the Atlantic in the UK, a survey conducted by Andrew Monk, a professor at the University of York, found that bystanders rated cellphone conversations as dramatically more noticeable, intrusive and annoying than those conducted face-to-face. The study found that while volume was an issue, hearing only half a conversation was also a major irritant.

A study of 702 frequent and occasional air travelers conducted on behalf of AFA by Lauer Research showed 63% opposed the lifting of cellphone restrictions on commercial aircraft and 70% wanted separate nonphone seating sections if the ban was lifted. Only 21% wanted the ban removed. Negative responses surged to 80% when the air travelers addressed questions relating to air rage associated with mobile phones. Key findings were:

78% agreed that cellphones could lead to greater unruliness and hinder flight attendants’ ability to maintain order. 82% said cellphones might make aircraft more uncomfortable and disruptive to passengers wanting to rest. 90% said flight attendants should have the ability to disconnect all cellphones instantly during safety announcements. While it may be argued that 702 passengers is a small sample, the Associated Press reported that the FCC received 7,696 public comments on reversing the current ban and the majority were in the negative.

What the new breed of inflight cellphone providers is banking on is our love of the mobileat least for our own use. Zurich-based OnAir’s CEO, former British Airways pilot and marketing executive George Cooper, says the company’s market research was “overwhelmingly supportive of passengers using their own cellphones on aircraft.” However, he is quick to point out that OnAir is robust in its focus on the social issues and will work with IATA and airlines “to ease and tailor the introduction and develop an inflight etiquette.”

Cooper believes that two distinct usage patterns will evolve. “On short-haul daylight flights, we expect a high level of voice usage as passengers see the flight as just part of their business day. However, the longer night flights will be more text-oriented as often the people that passengers want to contact have gone home themselves. This balance will work from a social perspective as short-haul flights tend to be noisier with more announcements and rushed catering service. Passengers will be less likely to use their laptops because short-haul flights typically have less room and most aircraft do not have in-seat power for laptops.”

Culture Clash
Cooper also believes that etiquette will vary from country to country. “In Sweden if you use a cellphone at a restaurant, not only will the waiters tell you to turn it off, so will other diners. But in Barcelona, everyone is on the phone at restaurants.” Of course the challenge for SAS Group is how to establish standards for cellphone usage on its twice-daily service from Stockholm to Barcelona via Copenhagen. The first sector is with Scandinavian Airlines where the norms will be enforced easily, but passengers must change planes in Copenhagen to affiliate Spanair where a different set of rules may apply that are tailored to the Spanish market.

“Clearly there are going to be differences across the globe. A flight from Singapore to Hong Kong is going to be significantly different than one from Sydney to Melbourne and we will work with airlines to tailor the product delivery for their market,” says Cooper. “We have found, for instance, that 89% of people know how to turn their phones onto ‘silent’ and activate the vibrate alert and we expect many airlines to allow the phones if they are in these modes to eliminate the irritation of the wide variety of ring tones.” Also, flight attendants will be able to deactivate the system during times of rest. He believes that OnAir’s use of the new Inmarsat Swift Broadband service for the air-to-ground link will go a long way toward easing problems with voice clarity common with current seatback phones.

While jockeying for customers, all would-be providers also are jockeying with regulators and certification agencies to gain the host of approvals necessary before the first passenger phones home. To do so, they must persuade them that modern technology will eliminate any risk of interference with aircraft systemsthe issue that still keeps cellphones banned from use inflight.

Suppliers believe they have eliminated this as a factor, as well as potential interference with terrestrial systems as aircraft pass overhead, through onboard use of pico cells (ATW, 10/04, p.30). A cabin management system will allow flight attendants to control the service by turning off the voice element when required and limiting use to text at night. Proving that pico cells work as advertised will take another year or so, according to some experts.

For airlines that do not intend to invest in the expensive technology, the challenge is persuading passengers that the rules banning mobiles in flight are for their own safety. A cellphone, even in standby mode, transmits a signal to register and reregister with the cellular network. As an aircraft gets farther away from a base station, the output power of the phone increases to maintain contact. This is where the risk to aircraft systems is at its greatest.

Considerable debate has surrounded the use of mobiles on aircraft because of the random nature of “events” and the difficulty in assigning the cause to the illegal use of a cellphone. However, in 2003 the UK CAA published its findings in a comprehensive study using aircraft avionics equipment and cellphones in a range of frequency bands. It found anomalies at interference levels above 30 volts/meter, a level that can be produced by a phone operating at maximum power and located 30 cm. from the equipment or its wiring harness. The types of anomalies included:

Instability of indicators.
Errors of up to 5 deg. in the digital VOR navigation display.
VOR navigation to/from indicator reversal.
VOR/ILS course deviation indicator errors with and without a failure flag.
Reduced sensitivity of the ILS localizer receiver.
CAA also detailed 35 incidents between 1996 and 2002 that cited cellphones as factors. These included false warnings of unsafe conditions such as cargo smoke alarms.

Elsewhere, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau has reported 100 incidents in the past 10 years relating to mobile phones and portable electronic devices. ATSB also found that the use of PEDs and phones is at the root of 35% of passenger behavior incidents. And it is these incidents that concern Sue Fox, founder and president of Los Gatos, Calif.-based Etiquette Survival LLC. “Technology moves so quickly we haven’t worked out the do’s and don’ts yet,” she says. “There was a recent survey that found that 42% of Americans do not use their cellphones in a courteous manner, yet in the same survey 95% believed that they themselves used cellphones courteously.”

Fox adds, “There is no question that we have all become to some extent slaves to our cellphones; possibly it is even a love/hate relationship. And therefore there is serious potential for air rage and violence.” But she suggests there is a possible solution to the clash between convenience and annoyance: “Airlines need to be proactive in establishing and enforcing etiquette rules and applying the same legal consequences that they do for smoking onboard a flight, and be diligent about enforcing the rules.” The steps could include:

Covering airline cellphone guidelines and policies in the pre-flight film.
Keeping the same list of guidelines in the seat pocket.
Giving each passenger the guidelines when they check in.
Designating certain times during the flight for cellphone use.
Creating designated areas for cellphone users.
Requiring that passengers keep their conversations brief and speak quietly.
Asking that passengers use the vibrate feature on their phones while in flight.
Fox also believes airlines may consider nonphone seating areas. But given the potential for problems, possibly the ultimate solution may be a Cone of Silence similar to that used by TV’s bumbling “super spy” Maxwell Smart.

Going Mobile
Mobile phone system suppliers are convinced that if they can solve the technical issues, airlines can solve the social ones. Meanwhile, they are plunging ahead, determined to be in at the creation.

OnAir announced its first two customers, bmi and TAP, in September. Both airlines will trial the cellphone service on A320 family aircraft in late 2006, by which time OnAir expects the onboard equipment developed for it by Airbus, Siemens and other partners to be fully certified and the necessary telecommunications regulatory approvals to be in place. CEO George Cooper says the company plans to deliver a call cost “similar to international roaming rates.” He adds that data services would be in the region of $10 a flight and e-mails about $5 for 4 hr. usage, although OnAir will charge the airlines and it will be up to them to set the final cost.

Among other airborne phone providers are AeroMobile and AirCell. AeroMobile is a joint venture of ARINC and Norway’s Telenor. It has been trialing its system onboard Boeing’s 777-200LR during the aircraft’s recent world tour, where ATW had a chance to demo the system. It performed admirably. AeroMobile is using Inmarsat’s Aero-H/H+ satellite communication system, which is already installed on 2,000 aircraft.

Colorado-based AirCell is demonstrating its broadband system on a Dassault Falcon 2000 and, like AeroMobile, is focusing on existing infrastructure to deliver the product at the lowest cost. It is working with six potential customers.

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