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Wednesday, July 21, 1999 Published at 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK


In-flight mobile user jailed

Whitehouse was accused of "stubborn and ignorant" behaviour

A man has been sentenced to 12 months in jail for refusing to switch off his mobile phone during an international flight.

Neil Whitehouse, 28, from Mansfield, Notts, was convicted at Manchester Crown Court last month of "recklessly and negligently endangering" an aircraft.

The BBC's Christine Stewart: "The judge said the punishment would serve as a warning to others"
Judge Anthony Ensor told him there had been a real possibility that the British Airways flight from Madrid to Manchester last September, which had 91 people on board, could have been at risk.

In the first case of its kind in the UK, the court had heard that Whitehouse, an oil worker, repeatedly refused to switch off his phone after being spotted with it on the Boeing 737.

Rick Bates of Greater Manchester Police: "This should deter people from misbehaving"
Although he made no airborne calls, experts said interference from the phone could have sparked an explosion or affected the plane's navigational systems as it flew at 31,000 feet.

It could also affect systems controlling the rate of climb, cabin pressures, landing systems, the automatic pilot, altitude and other instruments.

'Different from air rage'

The judge rejected a plea from Tom Fitzpatrick, defending, that Whitehouse should only be given a severe financial penalty for what was "a fit of pique, unreasonableness and awkwardness".

[ image: Whitehouse accepted he had been
Whitehouse accepted he had been "improper, boorish and unreasonable"
Mr Fitzpatrick said Whitehouse accepted the jury's verdict and that his behaviour had been "improper, boorish and unreasonable."

But he said his case should be distinguished from other recent cases of "air rage".

"This essentially became a case to do with scientific opinion," he said. "In many respects this was a case entirely taken out of Mr Whitehouse's hands."

He said that no danger had been caused to the aircraft and the flight had not been affected.

'As serious as violence'

Whitehouse was first asked by cabin crew to turn the mobile off after he was spotted typing "I love you" onto the text face.

[ image: Experts say there is no doubt mobile phones are a safety risk]
Experts say there is no doubt mobile phones are a safety risk
When told it might interfere with navigation, he replied: "Why? Are we going to get lost?"

Sentencing him, Judge Ensor said: "You had no regard for the alarm that would be caused to passengers by your stubborn and ignorant behaviour."

And he said Whitehouse had treated the aircraft's pilot, David Travis, with "arrogance and disdain" when he refused to hand over his phone.

The judge said the sentence should serve as a warning that mobile phone use on planes would be treated as seriously as violence on aircraft.

"Any sentence must not only punish you but act as a warning to others who might be inclined to behave similarly," he said.

Call for new laws

The judge called on the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to conclude investigations into legislation specifically banning mobile phones on planes, in line with laws in the United States and Germany.

"Proliferation of ownership of mobile phones and an increasing number of reports from pilots of electro-magnetic interference makes this a priority," he said.

The sentence for Whitehouse, the first passenger to be prosecuted under the 1995 Air Navigation Order, was broadly welcomed.

Detective Sergeant Rick Bates of Greater Manchester police said: "We are very pleased that such a firm sentence has been passed that will deter people from misbehaving in this way in the future.

Sentence 'reflects offence'

"It has been a ground-breaking case and the first where someone has been convicted of endangering an aircraft in this way. The sentence sends out the message we wanted it to send."

The CAA also welcomed the decision, saying there was no doubt that mobile phones on aircraft is a safety risk.

"Their use on board aircraft is banned and they must be switched off," said a spokeswoman.

"We do know that there is a danger of mobile phones interfering with the aircraft's navigational systems."

She added that the CAA was looking into developing a device which could be fitted inside a plane to alert the crew if a mobile phone was being used.

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