FlySafair CEO Elmar Conradie Supplied Most South African airlines force you to switch off your phone on take-off and landing - except FlySafair. The budget airline apparently received an exemption. The other airlines are unhappy about it. If you, like most people, buy airline tickets on the basis of price rather than brand loyalty, you may have noticed the newest kid on the block is going rogue when it comes to demanding that you switch off your cellphone for take-off and landing.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
In the bigger scheme of things this really is a non-issue. This is nothing compared to a desire for world peace or the eradication of poverty, but it is, as it turns out, an unnecessary annoyance, and there is something of a double standard at play.
Last year, the Civil Aviation Authority issued a statement saying all airlines would be able, by the first quarter of 2019, to make their own decisions about whether passengers should be allowed to keep devices on or not.
Yet, the CAA has not yet issued a directive to allow this, and SAA and Comair are still strictly enforcing the old regulations.
When you fly on SAA, British Airways in SA or Kulula, the airline staff are all over you like a rash, demanding that you shut down your cellphone as soon as the aircraft doors close. Then the serious voice on the intercom implies the entire aircraft will going down in a ball of flame because cell phone signals interfere with aircraft navigation systems.
Except, that’s rubbish. An airline industry insider tells me that Comair and SAA have complained to the Civil Aviation Authority about the fact that they are still obliged to comply with its rule that phones are placed in flight mode or switched off for taxi, take-off and landing.
All airlines are still requiring this - all, except FlySafair.
“They have a certificate from the CAA,” says my source, who is fed up with fighting over the issue with the regulator. “It depends who you know. We asked and were told in no uncertain terms that we have to enforce the rule. It makes no sense.”
FlySafair CEO Elmar Conradie denies special treatment. He added that the airline is lobbying the CAA over the continued requirement to remove headphones during landing.
Tladi Tladi who speaks on behalf of SAA says: “We do so in compliance with CAA regulations. We tried to apply for exemption from this and did not succeed. We were told that keeping mobile devices on may lead to interference with aircraft avionics.”
The rule seems to originate from the United States and the Federal Communications Commission, which forbade the use of the new-fangled technology on aircraft two decades ago.
Whether it was based on science or fear is not clear. The concern is not that there is a problem with having powered-up devices on board, but that there is the potential for a problem.
According to a report from NASA, there is anecdotal evidence of pilots reporting events like radio interference when multiple devices on board are all sending and receiving messages and data. But there is no direct evidence that the reported incidents are as a result of cell phone interference.
How often have you come into land to have someone’s phone ring at high pitch on final approach? It happens all the time.
Do people really power down their laptops especially on short hops to Durban where you are barely locked and loaded by the time staff tell you it’s time to switch off.
The US FAA has on its website: “There are still unknowns about the radio signals that portable electronic devices and cell phones give off. These signals, especially in large quantities and emitted over a very long period of time may unintentionally affect aircraft communications, navigation, flight control and electronic equipment.”
There are an awful lot of maybes here. FlySafair says it's not flouting safety rules, which suggests the CAA for whatever reason is withholding permissions from Comair and SAA, despite the promise last year that the matter would be resolved by now.
Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award-winning financial journalist and broadcaster.
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