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Time to challenge airline paranoia on wireless

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Opinion There's no way an airline "cabin crew" member can be expected to know whether your PDA has a phone built into it, or whether your laptop computer has WiFi permanently on. Nor can they tell whether the wireless circuit is switched off. So, are we about to see a blanket ban on smartphones, and on notebook computers, in the air? And if so, what can we do about it?

The time really has come to challenge the myths of airline dangers, and settle, once and for all, what they are.

Can a mobile phone really cause a fly-by-wire computer-controlled aircraft to fall out of the sky? And if I switch on a Centrino-based PC, or a Pocket PC Phone edition, am I risking my life and those of my fellow passengers?

Frankly, I doubt it. I doubt it for the very simple reason that if it were possible, it would already have happened. The only example I know where a plane crashed while people were using their phones, was the fourth plane on 9/11; where the use of mobile phones very nearly saved all their lives, when they checked with family and discovered what was going on.

It wasn't the phone that caused that crash. I think we all know this.

For example, when was the last time you flew, and did NOT hear someone's cellphone ringing in their bag in the overhead lockers? Come to that, if the broadcasts from GSM phones are so destructive, why is it that airline staff can't even detect whether your phone is actually switched on or off?

The fact is that almost every flight into every European airport these days, takes off and lands automatically, with at least one phone "live" on board. That doesn't prove it's safe; there may be, conceivably, a combination of circumstances where certain failsafe devices are disabled, and the operation of a GSM radio, searching for a new cell, might be the last straw - but isn't it getting spookily unlikely, after all these years?

My friend Tim, who has worked in air traffic control, assures me that it is now commonplace for controllers talking a plane down to hear the background "biddy-bip, biddy-bip" of a phone logging onto a cell, as the pilot's own phone gets switched on.

If the phone menace has been over-stated - and I think it definitely has been - what about the threat of WiFi? Is it reasonable to ask: why have people like myself been working on international flights for the last two years, with WiFi switched on, without anybody noticing?

Some publicity has been given to experiments with wireless networking on board aircraft. Tests have been done with standard WiFi, and with alternative systems; but the fear of some professional pilots is that one day, a laptop computer with a working 802.11 radio will interfere with the flight electronics, and one of them will be blamed for not banning them.

And some pilots are lobbying to have all computers banned from the cabin. Not just to have them switched off during take-off and landing, as they are today, but consigned to the hold.

If this is necessary, then I'm all for it, myself; but surely, the evidence is that it isn't necessary?

Risk assessment is not a simple matter. You don't do ANYTHING on an aircraft which might endanger the passengers; but the question of "does this endanger passengers?" isn't answered by "if there is a way someone can imagine it being dangerous, it must be banned!"

Instead, someone ought to make it their business to discover just what the danger is, and assess the risk.

Right now, all the data I have says WiFi doesn't harm a plane. All the data I have says that nobody on the plane can even tell if my phone is on or off, and nobody has yet been able to tell if my WiFi is on or off, either. And the plane flies on.

Let's see data, not unreasoning fears - and let's assess that data reasonably.

Oh, and I have been on planes where not just one or two phones have worked. I flew to Italy, a couple of years ago, on a plane chartered by a mobile phone maker. We made calls, all of us, all the way across Europe.

I dare say that this annoyed one or two mobile phone providers; but the plan didn't hiccup.

When airline staff have evidence that wireless on an aircraft is dangerous, then let them produce equipment that can detect that danger. If someone accidentally switches on a dangerous wireless device, I want the aircrew to know immediately, and locate the device instantly, and turn it off or isolate it without hesitation.

If they can't detect it, why should I believe the plane can?

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