Saturday, November 02, 2013

This just in: common sense breaks out in airline industry

You could say Alec Baldwin took one for the rest of us when he was forcibly removed from an American Airlines flight at Los Angeles International Airport in December 2011. Baldwin - or TV's Jack Donaghy to all right-thinking people - was kicked off the plane for, apparently, continuing to play Words With Friends on his phone long after passengers had been told to switch off their electronic devices for takeoff.

Of course, Baldwin’s act of defiance had nothing to do with highlighting the absurdity of the aviation industry’s restriction on gadget use, even if a publicist for the actor maintained at the time that "He loves WWF so much that he was willing to leave a plane for it”.

No one, I can think of, loves their smartphone, tablet, laptop or the movie or on-deadline work project so much they’re willing to leave a plane. For the most part, people want to just get on with the whole ordeal and arrive at the other end.

But the American Airlines cabin crew member who allegedly had to ask Baldwin five times to switch off his phone will be taking at least a semi-breath of relief following this week’s announcement by the US Federal Aviation Administration that it was changing its policy on the use of electronic gadgets during takeoff and landing.

The policy - adopted around the world by other aviation regulators - is an arcane piece of safety control dating back before airliners started being kitted out with in-flight WiFi and satellite TV feeds, when mass mobile phone ownership was still relatively new, and there were concerns that even the lasers contained in portable CD players (there’s one for the teenagers!) could interfere with critical flight systems like navigation in the air and on the ground.

Picture: Air France
The FAA's announcement on Thursday was that, subject to further technical validation by airlines, passengers would be able to use their personal electronic devices to listen to music, watch movies, read and play Words With Friends "in all phases of flight”, as long as these devices remain in ‘flight mode’ without the ability to receive or make calls or send data wirelessly. In other words, the ban on mobile phones being used to speak to people on flights remains in place, which is something we should all embrace.

Planes, unlike other modes of public transport, remain the last sanctuary from listening to other people talking at excessive volume about their medical woes, their Aunt Fanny’s dodgy knee, whether the person at the other end of the line can remember to buy extra milk for the weekend, and all the other irritating bits of personal information people feel the need to impart loudly while in the company of strangers.

Thankfully, putting in-flight mobile phone reception on planes is still some way away, even though it has been touted for a while as an imminent possibility, although the proliferation of in-flight WiFi will no doubt lead to the annoyance of loud conversations via VoIP.

All that aside, however, the most important part of all this is that soon, the majority of passengers who simply want to get on board, strap in and start watching a film or films, or spend the time confined within the big silver bird productively, will be able to just that from wheels-up to wheels-down. Quite rightly, the FAA’s change of policy has been welcomed universally.

Flight attendants, in particular have given their approval, although Veda Shook, president of America's Association of Flight Attendants told Business Week that it shouldn't result in a safety compromise. "We’re not going to run away from technology," she said, "but we’re not going to run away from safety, either”, pointing out that having more gadgets out during the most safety-critical periods of a flight - take-off and landing - could also represent a safety risk.

Clearly, no-one wants a 2Kg laptop flying at them during a bumpy landing, which means, according to the appropriately-named Shook, there may be new regulations needed to ensure every airline was consistent on what needs to be stored under a seat or in an overhead bin, and what could be held or put in a seat back pocket.

Inconsistency across airlines is still one of the frequent flyers’ biggest bugbears. Today, some airlines allow mobile phones to be switched on when a plane is taxiing after landing (and hats off, British Airways, for relaxing on this one), while others don’t, causing frosty moments between passengers and cabin crews. On the other hand, phones - quite rightly - should not be on during take off, although there is always one passenger who thinks he - and, yes, it usually is - is above everyone else by continuing that "essential" phone conversation while the plane is running on the ground.

The rule change on laptops, tablets and MP3 players, however, is at least a step in the direction of common sense. “It’s great when you have kids, because you can get them settled in and settled down, and it makes a huge difference in the quality of the flight,” Atlanta-based PR executive Jodi Fleisig told Business Week.

“They can play games on their iPads, or they can read or watch a movie.” Though a sign of the times that a child might even have an iPad, getting children settled on a flight - and keeping them that way - is a major challenge for parents…and their fellow passengers alike.

Once the technological validation of the relaxation of gadgets has been carried out by US airlines, most are expected to adopt the new guidelines by the end of the year.

Already, Delta Airlines says it is ready to allow devices being used ‘gate to gate’ immediately, while JetBlue - an airline that has pioneered many in-flight conveniences - is champing at the bit to be the first US airline to lift the device restrictions.

Other parts of the world are not so clear, though the European Aviation Safety Agency said that it would analyze the FAA’s decision before making its own position known.

For now, the FAA can give themselves a pat on the back for removing one of the most outdated examples of in-flight nannying there is. "We believe today's decision honours both our commitment to safety and consumer's increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of their flights,” said the US Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx.

Some restrictions, though, will remain: "Passengers must take a break from their devices, their reading material, their music, whatever they are doing, and listen to the safety briefing before each flight,” says FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “It is information that can save your life.” And pilots can very easily impose an immediate ban on devices being used during airport approaches in bad weather and poor visibility, where planes use radio signals to land.

As a fairly frequent flyer, and someone who cannot enjoy the luxury of sleeping on planes, the airline cabin is an opportunity to buy back some time, to mainline a box set on my iPad or get on with work without being interrupted by ringing phones and a noisy office.

But, perhaps, the biggest beneficiary of the FAA's lifting of the restrictions on electronic devices are the flight attendants who have to constantly deal with belligerent passengers.

As Laura Glading, head of the trade union representing 16,000 American Airlines flight attendants - including, presumably, Alec Baldwin’s nemesis - told the New York Times, her colleagues were “frankly tired of feeling like hall monitors when it comes to this issue”.

Picture: Air France

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