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Why ban mobile phones on planes?

By Chris Berg - posted Tuesday, 18 October 2005

Police in Warwick, Rhode Island, USA, earlier this year reported that a driver, fed up with being stuck behind another driver who was chatting away on his mobile phone, got out of his car, called the other driver a punk, and promptly punched him in the face.

It’s now undeniably a cliché to proclaim that you can’t stand people using their mobile phones on public transport, or, for that matter, in any public place previously reserved for awkward silence. Mobile phones have inherited the same social baggage that smoking once held - perfectly legal and many people do it, but accompanied with disapproving looks from passers-by. As with smoking, it is greeted with the heavy-handed social regulation and legislation which is increasingly definitive of our relationships with government and each other. Bans on mobile phone use in cars are the most obvious example - the assumption being that making a phone call while driving is more dangerous than Mr Bean getting dressed on the way to work.

Is communication anti-social?

This is how most people approach the vexed question of mobile phone use on aircraft. It is easy to bristle at the possibility of having to sit through a nine-hour flight listening to a one-sided conversation in what seems to be Portuguese. For that matter, any electronic device can be potentially maddening. In the rare moments I take my iPod buds out of my ears, I’m sometimes shocked at how loudly I was listening to the music, and wonder how audible it was to people around me.


But there is a clear demand to use these devices. The flight between Melbourne and Sydney would be a decidedly different experience if the regular commuters were permitted to continue their business, rather than having that 51-minute quiet time. Also, as flying entails the diminution of a number of personal freedoms, food, sleep, even bathroom breaks are regulated, being able to communicate with family, friends or colleagues would be a reassertion of personal liberty.

And why shouldn’t they be allowed to?

Just as there are more dangerous activities to do while driving, there are more annoying things on airplane travel than a fellow traveller phoning home. If you don’t believe this, then you can’t remember John Candy in Trains, Planes and Automobiles, or Brad Pitt explaining to a bemused Edward Norton how to turn soap into explosives in Fight Club. But the quickest way to put the lie to the argument that mobile phones cause “air-rage” (road-rage for the jet-lagged class) and should therefore be banned, is the mere existence of the expensive, back-of-seat telephones.

A recent survey of 702 air travellers showed that 63 per cent of flyers wanted to maintain existing mobile phone restrictions in aircraft. Only 23 per cent wanted to lift the ban. But as economist Bryan Caplan notes:

… current opinion probably suffers from a large status quo bias. It wouldn’t take long before people started to enjoy the freedom to use their phones, and quit fretting so much about other people using theirs.

Would planes fall out of the sky?

Contrary to the impression created by the regular and hyperbolic instructions to turn off anything more powerful than a clockwork Happy Meal toy, it is not clear that electronic devices and mobile phones do interfere with aircraft electronics.

The history of regulation of personal electronic devices (PEDs) on aircraft, whether 2-way (“intentional transmitters”) such as mobile phones, pagers and radios, or “non-intentional” transmitters, such as iPods, laptops and Game-Boys, has been one of apprehension. The initial ban on electronic devices on aircraft came after a 1963 study by the American Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), which looked at reports that PEDs had possibly interfered with aircraft onboard electronic equipment.


Further studies by the RTCA, one in the mid-1980s, and another ten years later, found that such a risk was extremely low, but was highest at critical phases during the flight, particularly take-off and landing. In addition to these three studies, the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) looked specifically at mobile phone devices which showed theoretically they could interfere with avionics, in particular with systems which had been certified to pre-1984 standards. Following these findings, the CAA recommended that the ban be upheld.

NASA keeps a record of nearly 70,000 anonymously reported aviation incidents and flight problems. But in only 52 of these - in other words, 0.08 per cent - did the crew suspect that the interference was caused by any personal electronic device. (As a side-note, 23 cases of “air rage” were listed as caused by the use of PEDs.)

Looking at a number of examples contained in the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting Systems database is instructive:

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Article edited by Peter Coates.
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About the Author

Chris Berg is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review.

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All articles by Chris Berg

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