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Pilots Can Use iPads During Takeoff and Landing, but You Can’t

The Federal Aviation Administration’s restriction on electronic devices — even those that don’t have internal radios or are in Airplane Mode — during takeoff (including sitting on the runway for hours) and landing has always seemed unnecessarily cautious, and Nick Bilton of the New York Times has explored that in the past. But his latest blog post makes the restriction seem even more ridiculous, since the FAA is now allowing American Airlines pilots to use iPads in the cockpit at all times. The only defense given is that it might be different if everyone was using a device during takeoff or landing, but that seems eminently testable. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if flying could become more convenient for a change?favicon follow link


Comments about Pilots Can Use iPads During Takeoff and Landing, but You Can’t
(Comments are closed.)

Jean-Francois Denis  2011-12-16 13:32
It may simply have something to do security (during take-off and landing procedures), and having everyone's attention.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-12-16 13:38
That argument has been floated before, but the simple fact is that they don't yell at you to stop reading your magazine or book, or refuse to take off until everyone is paying attention. (And really, once you've heard the safety instructions 40 or 50 times, it's hard to pay too much attention beyond figuring out where the emergency exits are.)
Kevan Pegley  2012-01-03 02:13
That certainly is the somewhat spurious reason given for not turning on the inflight entertainment system until the aircraft has reached cruising altitude.
Julian Vrieslander  2011-12-20 02:43
The airlines are obviously being very cautious and conservative. Electronic devices with high speed processors do emit radio frequency interference, even if they are not operating on communication channels. It would be impossible to test for all possible customer usage patterns. New devices and new apps come out all the time. The FCC (and other agencies) impose regulations on the permitted amounts of emitted radiation from consumer devices. But those devices can fail in ways that generate excess interference, users modify them, and operate them in unexpected ways.

Avionics are probably designed to be robust against the normal interference expected from such devices. But do you want to be on that rare flight when some nimrod starts up his modded laptop and causes the plane's navigation or flight control systems to misplace a few bits? Most airlines are currently restricting the usage of gizmos only during take-off and landing, when the aircraft is most vulnerable.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-12-20 08:26
I'm no engineer, but I have to imagine that the designers of these airplanes are taking into account potentially significant radiation, since there's nothing stopping the guy with the modded laptop from using it other than the policies, enforced by the airline attendants. If it was an actual danger, they'd have far more draconian rules. And it's not like people don't forget to turn off their cell phones all the time, without any ill effects on the plane (most of those rules are to avoid confusing the cell networks, as I understand it, since a phone that high in the air can "see" numerous towers at once.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-12-20 10:54
Airplanes have been hardened against RF for the last several decades. Pilots are allowed to use laptops in the cockpit, and now iPads. Cellular phones are provably and measurably left on (not in airplane mode, but trying to connect from a bag) or actively used (furtively) on every flight.

If there were a problem to occur, we would have seen thousands of incidents by now because every flight is an accidental test flight.

The FAA and a separate industry/governmental group have spent years performing tests with personal electronics, and have been unable to replicate any of the handful of crew-reported anecdotes that are logged.

If airlines actually thought electronics were a threat, a flight attendant would be checking every person's to make sure they were powered off, not just asleep.

Modern laptop transmit Wi-Fi signals while they are "sleeping" but not powered off. And so on. It's just clear that between testing and actual practice, no effect can be correlated with the use of electronic devices.

The one legitimate concern I heard when writing an article about this in 2005 was from the British civil aviation authority, which had legitimate issues about the oldest planes in use, as they have the least RF hardening. But they hadn't carried out tests at that point, and I have heard of none since, that revealed problems.
Tomoharu Nishino  2011-12-20 20:52
The FAA/airlines want one simple enforceable rule to cover a very diverse fleet (from brand new 777s to 30 year old turbo-props) flying into diverse airports.

As recent unfortunate accidents show, relatively minor issues coupled with a confused pilot can bring an airplane down. I think most people imagine a highly automated sophisticated cockpit. But that is only true of the newer planes into big airports. That turbo-prop or older jet flying into regional airport might be a pilot hand flying a ILS approach to minimums on analog gauges, trying to thread a corridor just 5 degrees wide and 1.4 degrees high while going 150 knots and descending at a rate of 800 feet a minute. You don't want that guy distracted.

The rules are there to avoid that rare combination of bad weather, bad equipment, bad pilot, bad airport and bad luck. It's probably a 1 in a 100 year event, and will probably never affect most of us. But are you willing to bet your life on it, for 10 minutes of convenience?
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-12-20 21:43
I don't buy that logic for a moment because, by that reasoning, planes wouldn't be allowed to fly at all.

Further, it ignores the fact that this is already going on. Cell phones are left on—on every single flight.

Thus, if the risk is already present, if it were a true concern, airlines and the FAA would be screening every phone, laptop, etc.

They are not. Thus, the fact that this gear is all turned on in bags and so forth, means that it's not a problem.
R Stephenson  2012-01-02 18:25
What I've heard--which could be an urban legend kind of thing--is that the only reason one can't use cell phones et al on airplanes is that the speed of flying is such that one's providers can't keep track of you and therefore can't bill you! If that's true, then the airlines and the FAA are involved in a big hoodwink of the citizenry. Please...Tell me I'm wrong.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-01-02 19:01
There are definitely issues with the cell phones in planes being able to "see" many towers, which can overload ground stations. That was an ostensible issue years ago, but I haven't seen an update on that.

Frankly, we know that thousands or even tens of thousands of cell phones are left on (put to sleep, but not turned off or set to airplane mode) in planes every day. So if it's a problem that was horrible, cell phones would be either confiscated by flight attendants and locked in a metal box before a flight or not allowed on altogether.
Bernard Lyons  2012-01-05 09:22
It's not about interference. All modern aircraft systems, certainly the flight-critical ones, are shielded.

It's to avoid passengers listening to music when they're supposed to be able to hear the flight attendants shouting "Brace for impact", and to minimise the number of objects flying about the cabin in the event of an accident or, for example, sudden loss of altitude. That's also why baggage has to be stowed and tray tables clipped up.

It's a safety rule, not for revenue protection or convenience.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-01-05 09:38
That's a reasonable supposition. But you may continue to read a book, wear a sleep mask, talk to your neighbors, etc. If I can be holding a Neil Stephenson 1,000-page book in my lap, that argument doesn't hold water.

My primary complaint is that the FAA, FCC, and airlines are simply avoiding the truth. They are lying about the actual issues, instead of clearly stating why the ban remains in effect.
Bernard Lyons  2012-01-05 14:05

"Before getting to cell phones, passengers should know that the restrictions pertaining to computers, iPods, and certain other devices have nothing to do with electronic interference at all. In theory, a poorly shielded notebook computer can emit harmful energy, but the main reasons laptops need to be put away for takeoff and landing is to prevent them from becoming high-speed projectiles in the event of an impact or sudden deceleration, and to help keep the passageways clear during an evacuation. Your computer is a piece of luggage, and luggage needs to be stowed so it doesn’t kill somebody or get in the way.

In the case of iPods and the like, it’s about the headphones. During takeoffs and landings, you need to be able to hear and follow instructions if there’s an emergency. That’s hard to do if you’ve got your MP3 player cranked to 11."

That's what The Pilot says.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-01-05 14:43
That's the reason why bags have to be stowed, including heavy objects. It doesn't fully explain the compact device issue, not why it's okay to wear earplugs or be asleep. Or have a book on your lap that's heavy than modern laptops.
David Emme  2012-01-05 16:44
You seem to be operating under the assumption that there is a current, reasonable, rational reason for this restriction :-)