Plane Talker Ben Sandilands confesses all about the new rules allowing gate-to-gate use of small electronic devices on Qantas and Virgin flights.
OK, sue me. I can’t remember a flight between Sydney and Melbourne in the last five years when my inadvertently left-on Blackberry didn’t land with more new emails than it showed before take off.
The rule about turning mobiles off in flight has been massively ignored, and totally unenforceable, for years, unless you did something visibly silly, like trying to compose a long text or make a voice call. Both of these remain prohibited (and in the case of voice calls, thank goodness).
But absent-mindedly leaving phones on in flight (Your Honour) has been commonplace for a long time. This resulted in lots of phones searching for a ground station using the metal fuselage of airliners as the send and receive antenna. Hundreds and hundreds of times a day.
Most of the messages passengers’ phones inadvertently picked up would have been received when the airliners were over an area populated by phone towers at lower altitudes approaching airports.
The rules adopted by Australia yesterday for compliant airlines are really only a small step toward complete inflight connectivity. It’s legal now to use your phone inside a jet when advised by cabin crew before takeoff and after landing. It’s not legal to use any device that will actively or passively attempt to connect to ground or satellite based wi-fi in flight.
But it is legal to use cabin wi-fi to download streaming video provided by the airlines, including the progressive flight mapper.
The airlines love this development. They spend zillions providing back-of-seat entertainment systems that not all flyers use anyhow. Allowing passengers to pay for that investment is a godsend, as it is much cheaper to just run an on-board server and weak wi-fi distribution than install and maintain hundreds of fixed individual units.
What’s not to like? Well, sooner rather than later, airlines will succumb to the temptation to force users of streaming wi-fi to look at advertisements, since your friendly ad blocker won’t work. But you can win that struggle by not using their wi-fi at all and watch your choice of the bloodiest of scenarios on Game of Thrones, silencing the obnoxious brat who keeps climbing up the back of your seat to peer over your shoulder.
A rather pragmatic Virgin Australia insider said her main concern as a cabin attendant would be preventing passengers, while peering distractedly at their devices, falling down the rear stairs of aircraft after landing.
In that regard, flying has now become just as fraught with delays — caused by inattentive social media or entertainment device users — as train stations, where the risk of falling down stairs also includes falling onto the tracks or into the gap between a carriage and a platform.
Flying with live devices will not be anywhere near as dangerous as walking with them over pedestrian crossings, or into other people, or worst of all, being criminally stupid and using them while driving.
But they will intrude into the not-particularly-nice-anymore process of flying in these times when everyone flies.
As the babble of in-flight phone use hangs over air travellers as a more distinct threat, will we face a future in which there are “quiet rows” like the phone-free carriages on some trains, with others reserved for loud-talking Masters of the Universe? That’s the real worry.