Qantas and Virgin Australia to Permit Gate-to-Gate Personal Electronic Device Usage

Both Qantas and Virgin Australia are set to permit gate-to-gate use of Personal Electronic Devices (PED) from next week with both airlines expected to make announcements over coming days (Update: QF and Virgin Press releases).

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) have today published their Airworthiness Bulletin that dictates the nature of inflight gate-to-gate usage, meaning that airlines essentially have the weekend to formulate policy, make necessary amendments to internal procedures and disseminate that information to crew. The perceived rush to have the service offered is commercially driven since it’s likely Qantas and Virgin will both take advantage of the guidelines as soon as they’re able.

Both major carriers were instrumental in formulating policy, so they had sufficient time to properly prepare basic guidelines prior to the Instrument Exception this week.

CASA does not have a policy that explicitly prohibits PED usage at any phase of flight, but they do, by way of Paragraph 9.3 of the Civil Aviation Orders (CAO 20.16.3 ), detail how “solid items” (i.e. anything other than books, pillows etc.) should be secured (not stowed) for takeoff.

It appears that as our taste for mobile electronics has evolved, the Earth has evolved at roughly the same rate as to eliminate turbulence and other weather phenomena that might morph your iPhone into a flying axe. It’s only when you read 20.16.3 you realise the absurdity of effectively doing away with proven legislation in the pursuit of providing airlines with a marketing opportunity.

Airlines have been given large amounts of discretion with relation to PED usage but they’ve always had to follow published CASA guidelines or, in the absence of such, provide sufficient evidence that they’ve conducted the necessary research to formulate an almost definitive cost-benefit based solution. In other words, it’s just easier to stick with proven methods of PED usage… particularly when CASA and other regulators fuel concern over usage with a barrage of information relating to incidents and accidents that were suspected of being caused by PEDs.

Jeremy wrote about PED gate-to-gate in December last year. He suggested in no uncertain terms that the implementation is driven by the commercial arms of airlines with little of no consultation with those responsible for day-to-day operations.

The drive for unrestricted PED and IFE usage does not come from any frontline operational crew. It’s very much driven by somewhat clueless airline executives that see usage as a calculated risk when compared against the commercial and competitive advantages… and of course there’s the ill-informed PED advocates that can’t go 10-minutes without watching cute cats on YouTube. Those that support usage are not motivated by a need for safety. Airlines look long and hard for a competitive edge and permitting PED use … is nothing more than a selling point.

The relevant condition from Schedule 1 (Instrument number CASA EX102/14) reads as follows: “A small PED may be carried by a passenger during take-off, landing or other critical phases of flight whenever seat belts are required to be work in accordance with paragraph 4.1 of CAO 20.16.3.” A small PED (as per Instrument Definitions) means a PED with a mass of less than 1kg. What this effectively means is that you can carry a PED with battery a battery but you wouldn’t be allowed to hold, for example, a small bottle of duty free alcohol.

The 1kg rule is determined in part by the seat pocket capacity behind each seat. They generally have a 1.5kg limit so, excluding the airline magazine and safety card, it generally leaves 1kg for items to be stowed. The figure does, however, tie in nicely with the results of research conducted of injures sustained by flying tablets.

Of course, the Pilot in Command will always have final authority with relation to PED usage. CAR 224 states that, in part, “… the pilot in command shall have final authority as to the disposition of the aircraft.” (Australia’s rendition of ICAO Document 9376). This gives him or her to exercise whatever discretion is deemed appropriate to ensure safe continuance of flight. If it wasn’t already applied by company regulations in times of severe weather, gusty turbulence or, perhaps, low visibility operations, the Captain might choose to have PEDs turned off and stowed in such adverse conditions.

In The Cabin

It’s expected that passenger address announcements in the terminal (and cabin) will change to reflect the new rules (and also ensure compliance with the education component of the Exception). It’s also expected that there will be a requirement to be in ‘Flight Mode’ at all times with a need for passengers to have headsets off until the seatbelt sign is off.

There’s a 1kg limitation on small PEDs and it’ll be interesting to see how this is both received and enforced; 1kg restricts devices to tablets and telephones. It’s unlikely any laptop will fit this ‘small PED’ category (or even tablets with an attached keyboard).

If CASA were on board an aircraft and observed non-compliance (that’ll invariably occur on every single flight), would they remove the instrument? Time will tell.

Download the CASA Instrument

Download the Airworthiness Bulletin (23-003) here. The document provides numerous reference to FAA and European guidelines that have formed the basis for the Australian exemption.

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