As a frequent flyer I am able to observe and experience the many variations between airlines with regard to the use of electronic devices on board aircraft. I’m not sure who makes up the rules because each airline seems to quote a different authority, depending on which nation they are based in or flying from.

Without being too hypocritical, if you are flying in an aluminium capsule 40,000 feet in the air and duty free sales are underway you can pretty much assume that you under nobody’s immediate jurisdiction except, perhaps, the country you are flying over. But I digress.

Why then, are there so many variations in rules about the use of electronic devices on board flights? Do they really interfere with the planes navigation system and, if they do, how come you can’t use them when the plane is taxiing on the ground? Are they still on auto-pilot and using navigational aids then? Why do some airlines insist that you don’t turn on phones until the door is opened, is it because the radio waves also use the doorway to travel from base stations to you phone?

How come you can read a book at any time, but if those evil Kindles are being read you risk the lives of everyone on board, despite the fact that with their Wi-Fi turned off they transmit less electromagnetic radiation than any one of the hundreds of fluorescent light tubes scattered throughout the plane.

Can somebody also please explain why mobile phones must be turned off completely and not just put into ‘airplane mode’ for take-off and landing. Isn’t that why they invented the ‘airplane’ setting? Why is it that planes equipped with Wi-Fi and internet transmitting stations and satellite links to the outside world now allow, even encourage, use of mobile phones on board when we have been told for years that turning on a phone will risk sending the plane, and everyone in it, into a plummeting death spiral? Amazing how revenue potential can override safety rules.

In fact, CNN reports that “despite the fact that 20 years of testing still hasn’t definitively proved that mobile phones, let alone any other electronic device, can cause aircraft interference, passengers are still prohibited from using tablets and e-readers during take-off and landing.

In August, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a study on the in-flight use of cell phones — devices that operate on the same frequency as aircraft navigational  equipment — in multiple European countries, and no direct incidents of interference were found. Two anomalies in Belgium did pop up, though the cause was left inconclusive. Though there have been plenty of instances where passengers have left their cell phones on during flight, there have been no reported problems regarding cell phone interference that have been positively linked to gadgets. Yet we’re still worried about non-transmitting devices.”

Even the venerable Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman, Julius Genachowski, has called the FAA’s policy on in-flight electronics use into question. FAA tests and those carried out by Boeing, one of the leading proponents of caution, have also been unable to create interference to aircraft navigational equipment. Considering our ever-increasing dependence on mobile phones, tablets and e-readers and our need to be hyper-connected with the broader digital world, it’s only a matter of time before changes come about.

CNN put it quite succinctly by writing, “anyone who believes that using an iPod during take-off and landing will endanger a flight needs a reality check.”

First published at TM Forum as The Insider, 14 December, 2012