couple of years ago I was sitting on QF12 travelling comfortably back from Los
Angeles to Sydney. I had spent some time catching up on some work and taking
care of a few e-mails. After sleeping for a few hours I woke up to see the sun
rising from 38,000 feet and was expecting to see Sydney shortly. As any geek
would do, I had the seat back entertainment screen tuned to the flight path and
I noticed the plane didn’t seem to be flying directly to Sydney. My fears were
confirmed when the Captain announced that Sydney Airport was closed due to fog
and we were going to land in Brisbane and then continue on to Sydney shortly

landed at Brisbane without incident and taxied to a position near the gates and
we were told we would stay on the aircraft for an hour and then fly on to
Sydney. I thought this seemed like a good opportunity to connect my notebook to
the Internet and sync Outlook to send all the e-mails that I had tidied up

was sadly mistaken.

a sniffer dog, as soon as I pulled out my phone and notebook I had an airline
hostess breathing down my neck. “You can’t use your phone while on the plane
Sir,” she said with the full authority vested in her position by herself. There
are some important positions held by people in the world. The POTUS. The Pope.
The Captain of the Australian Cricket Team. There is one that sits above them
all though. An airline hostess. Legally each pilot in command has full control
and authority in the operation of an aircraft, without limitation, over passengers
and crew members but I think even a pilot in command would hesitate in
questioning a hostie.

this particular morning I was either feeling brave or tired after 14 hours in
the air. I dared to talk back to the woman with ultimate power. I dared to ask
why I couldn’t use my phone. In a tone that suggested that everyone else in the
plane knew what she was about to say I was told that my phone could interfere
with navigation instruments on the plane and endanger the lives of everyone on
board. I looked out the window as we sat on the ground at Brisbane Airport and
said that if the pilot needed navigation equipment to know where we were then
we were in a lot of trouble. As her brow creased and her nostrils flared I
quickly apologised and put away my electronic equipment rather than bear the
full brunt of her fury.

I knew – and I suspect that she knew as well – was that there is absolutely no
proof whatsoever of a mobile phone causing any interference with the operation
of an aircraft. One of the great misconceptions of mobile phone interference is
that mobiles were banned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the
US. The fact is that it was not the FAA but the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) that originally prohibited the use of mobile phones aboard
aircraft and it had nothing to do with aircraft safety. It had everything to do
with user experiences. On 13 October 1983 the US saw the introduction of the
original analog mobile phone system or AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System) but
it was actually not that advanced. The system required considerable bandwidth
for a large number of users and the only way this was achieved was by re-using
frequencies in non-adjacent cells. This relied on the fact that the phones
could not actually transmit their signal to distant cells.

a phone on an aircraft though and the additional height suddenly means that you
have the same frequencies in non-adjacent cells. That spells interference and
lost revenue for the cellular companies. The technology in mobile phones has
improved somewhat since the introduction of AMPS 33 years ago and mobile phones
now have other methods to reduce interference. With that threat gone it is
frustrating that airlines still persist in telling passengers to turn their
phones off or onto flight mode. I suppose they do own the aircraft and they can
make decisions about what they want people to do on their aircraft but I would
prefer they were truthful with the reasons why. The reality is that it would be
incredibly annoying to have the person beside you saying “goochie goo” to their
pre-school child for an entire flight thinking that this would be a valid
substitute for real parenting. Or imagine a person beside you arguing with their
partner over the phone during a flight.

am sure the airlines are fully aware of the fact that safety is not an issue
here. If mobile phones really posed a threat to aircraft safety, I highly doubt
if the airlines would leave the power in the hands of passengers. All mobiles
would be confiscated before you boarded the aircraft. Nail scissors are removed
from your person before boarding for safety reasons yet, ‘highly dangerous’
mobile phones are left for the passengers to control. Recent surveys actually
showed that, on average, each international flight has fifteen phones left on
for the entire flight and each domestic flight has five. Three per cent of
people admit that they never turn their phone off. I even know of one flight
attendant who runs the company line of telling passengers to turn off their
phones and then sits down and starts texting until she needs to start serving

is a classic case of fear of technology without any data to support the fear.
We see it happen in so many situations in our daily lives where people don’t
use technology for no other reason than the fear factor. I say that we should
embrace technology and control it rather than having the fear of technology
control us.

of those conversations from a fellow passenger you might have to endure if the
ban was lifted maybe, in this case, the ban isn’t such a terrible idea after

Mathew Dickerson

Scroll to Top