Regular readers will know, work takes me back to the UK for a few days most months at the moment.

Whilst the flights themselves are short, the point-to-point journey often seems to take up most of a day – when you factor in the drive to the airport, the time you waste hanging around the terminal, battling through the bedlam at UK arrivals and then the train in to London. I sometimes try to get a bit of work done, but mostly of a fairly passive kind – reading rather than writing, say.

Until recently however reading of the electronic kind has been rudely interrupted, by the bizarre assumption that my immersion in a novel on my non-3G Kindle may somehow crash the plane.


Despite the fact that the devices in my lap probably gave off slightly less radio frequency emissions than the battery in the pilot’s watch, I always obediently closed my kindle for take-off, and even on landing when asked nicely.  And if I put my phone on after we had landed but were still taxiing, I always did it discreetly in the depths of a handbag and texted rather than called whoever was picking me up to say I was down.

It’s always been pretty vague anyway as to what period of time the restrictions covered in the first place.  The regulation regarding the ‘critical’ flight stages referred to safe usage about 10,000 feet, but how do you judge that from within the cabin? I know I usually felt it was OK to put my iPad or Kindle back on once the crew were released from their seats.

It’s over a year now since he Civil Aviation Authority in the UK acknowledged the anachronism of this requirement under pressure from BA and other airlines, but interestingly it was left up to each airline to come up with its own guidelines on device usage going forward.  But with both the Federal Aviation Authority and the European Aviation Safety Agency approving use of handheld devices throughout take-off and landing before the end of 2013, why are some airlines still resisting the change?

There are recommendations within the legislation that require testing and modification, but for most carriers compliance with this is a high priority – with customer service in a competitive environment running a close second behind safety.

Using the devices we enjoy makes travel less tedious.  My Kindle holds hundreds of books at a fraction of the size and weight of a single paperback. On my iPad I can read magazines, newspapers, watch movies, play games…  Anyone who travels with children, as I frequently do, has found the use of tablets and smartphones during travel pretty much lifechanging whether by car or air – not so much ‘are we nearly there yet?’ as ‘can we fit in another Harry Potter?’

Even for communications, device use in the air is growing – BA and other long haul operators are introducing satellite ‘picocells’ to enable mobile data transmission above 10,000 feet on certain flights – it’s very much dependent on adaptations in the individual plane because the risk of mobile interference in pilot’s headsets is widely acknowledged, and on most trips ‘flight safe’ mode is still very much the norm. A mobile phone searching for a network operator emits higher energy radio waves than one connecting to a device over Bluetooth or to a network via Wi-Fi, and are therefore more likely to cause electromagnetic interference.

There are customer service issues here for and against in my book.  On a short haul trip freedom from email and messaging has its liberating elements, and I love being able to read my book in piece during a flight – I don’t think I would enjoy my novel quite some much if someone were barking into a mobile inches from my face, Dom Joly style: “I’M ON THE PLANE…”

The practices for each carrier are changing so fast that it’s hard to stay up to date, but I believe at the time of writing only Monarch still make you switch off for take-off and landing – which for me, makes me less likely to book with them when I am choosing.

Incidentally all flights require laptops to be securely stowed when not cruising, because of dangers associated with loose objects in the cabin during manoeuvres.  Which is fair enough – though creates increasing grey areas as to what defines a hand-held device as opposed to a laptop: my iPad in its clamcase is about the same size as a Macbook Air for example, but certainly I own good old fashioned tree-books which weigh more, and I wouldn’t want to get wacked on the head by any of the above in an emergency landing or spot of unexpected turbulence.

And devices are still not strictly allowed ‘from gate to gate’ – everyone must put them down during the safety briefing.  And there is one other rare occasion in which you may be asked to switch devices off: during automatic landings in poor visibility (less than 1% of flights). Then the aircraft is entirely dependent on signals sent from the ground, and regulators want to eliminate any possible danger of interference.

Main thing is, if they say switch it off now you can be sure its for good reason, rather than the spurious outdated thing about radio frequency emissions vaguely invoked until a few months back.  And it’s also important to remember that an airline captain in flight has quite extensive legal powers, for safety reasons, over everyone on board – so you have to do what they say. I was recently on a flight containing 3 separate stag parties –oh joy – where the captain announced his refusal to land until every passenger was quietly strapped down, and arranged police escort for some of them on arrival. Within Europe we don’t yet have armed air marshalls on board, which until that particular journey I had always regarded as a good thing…  When you’re in a small metal tube hurtling through the skies, safety and comfort matter – whether that means being able to enjoy your ebook in peace or simply being a courteous and unobtrusive fellow passenger.

Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, June 27th 2014

©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL

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  • BoozeMonkey

    I admire your fortitude. I’m out like a light after my second gin and tonic, which is probably a good thing for all concerned because I scream like a 13 year-old girl at a One Direction concert on all but the smoothest of flights. Safe travels.

    • Casslar

      Hmm. Screaming and gin? Are you quite sure you weren’t on my recent flight in to ALC where the police were called..?