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Why Do Airlines Require Us to Turn Off Our Gadgets?

by Steve McCabe

You could be forgiven for feeling a little confused if you’ve been trying to keep up lately with the various regulations and requirements surrounding electronic devices on airplanes, something I try to do even though I spend more time teaching physics than flying these days.

For a number of years, the rule has been quite simple: no personal electronic devices may be used below 10,000 feet, the altitude at which the captain will, typically, turn off the “fasten seat belts” warning, and, generally, a point in the flight by which the aircraft has left the busy airspace around a major airport.

But recent news from American Airlines would appear to undermine this regulation. Last month, American announced [1] that paper flight manuals and navigation charts were to be phased out on their Boeing 777 flights, with iPads taking their place. In late 2011, American’s pilots began using iPads [2] as electronic flight bags during some phases of flight; this new development sees iPads being used in the cockpit during the entire flight, from pushback to parking.

However, American Airlines passengers must still turn their electronic devices off before takeoff and leave them off until 10,000 feet; the requirement remains for passengers to power down all electronic devices — cellphones and laptops, Kindles and iPods, even the very iPads that the captains of American Airlines’ triple-sevens are using while they are telling their passengers not to use theirs — during departure or arrival.

So why does the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continue to apply this rule? If, as American Airlines has demonstrated, iPads in the cockpit — inches away from the very avionics they could theoretically interfere with, if they were in the hands of passengers — represent no hazard to flight safety, why, then, can they not be used in the cabin? The answer simply seems to be that the FAA’s regulations regarding personal electronics are a holdover from the Dark Ages of Tech — Part 91 [3] of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) bans all personal electronics, with a handful of specific exceptions: portable voice recorders, hearing aids, heart pacemakers (jolly decent of them there) and electric shavers. An eclectic list, to be sure, but one that’s entirely antiquated (portable voice recorders? really?) and long overdue for an overhaul. And, once the overhaul is complete, given that the rest of the world tends to follow the FAA’s lead in this area, perhaps the de facto international standards will also relax.

The FARs do allow the operator of a flight — in the case of commercial flight, the airline — to allow the use of any devices they have determined to be safe, but the FAA has issued guidelines that ban electronics under 10,000 feet. And so the FAA’s request for comments [4] on the matter, issued on 28 August 2012, is long overdue.

Clearly these regulations are in need of review. Modern portable electronics are designed to conform to U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules on electromagnetic emissions, and should be able to handle interference from other nearby devices — if my iPhone can handle some stray radio waves, then surely a hundred-million-dollar Boeing jet should be equal to the challenge.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) clearly does not regard portable electronics as a significant threat to flight safety. Even though passengers in U.S. airspace are prohibited from carrying more than a thimbleful of liquid through airport security gates, portable electronic devices — which, the FAA fears, could send a plane plummeting from the skies just because a passenger has started playing Angry Birds — are waved through. If these devices actually represented a safety hazard, would we be allowed to carry them on board?

Similarly, ask yourself this — if your iPhone really had the potential to down your plane, would your flight attendant be happy simply to ask you to turn it off, and then trust that you have complied? In reality, many passengers don’t — a simple search on YouTube for takeoff and landing videos such as this arrival into Auckland [5] suggests that plenty of aircraft are landed on a daily basis with all manner of electronic devices running in the back.

We travelers assume that there is no evidence to suggest that portable electronic devices actually can cause accidents. If there were, then we would be prohibited from using our electronics at any phase of the flight, not merely during takeoff and landing. The FAA’s own fact sheet [6] on the matter suggests that I have to turn my iPad off to avoid distracting the flight crew because they will be concentrating especially hard:

“At a lower altitude, any potential interference could be more of a safety hazard as the cockpit crew focuses on critical arrival and departure duties.”

The same fact sheet also points out that the FCC bans use of 800 MHz cellphones because of potential interference with ground facilities — not confirmed interference, and not with inflight electronics. But most modern electronic devices have some form of “flight mode” or, in the case of the iPhone, “airplane mode,” that disables all wireless transmissions while allowing use of all other functions.

Again, we should remember that this rule is, clearly, being flouted on a daily basis to no ill effect. The argument goes that a cellphone several miles up has direct line-of-sight access to a large number of cellphone towers, many more than it can directly communicate with while on the ground, and it can thus confuse the cell networks. By this logic, we should also, presumably, ban the use of cellphones in tall buildings, atop hills, or anywhere else where such a situation might occur. But we don’t, for the same reason that the in-flight rule is so weakly enforced — clearly there is little actual impact, and no evidence of a safety-of-flight hazard. Besides, if this were an issue, wouldn’t the FAA point the finger at the cell carriers, rather than claim it’s a safety issue?

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the requirement that iPods and iPhones and the like are turned off until 10,000 feet has an interesting unintended consequence. When a plane passes this altitude, as many as a few hundred devices could all be turned on at the same time — hundreds of devices being powered up simultaneously will, presumably, result in a major surge of electromagnetic radiation, but electromagnetic interference has yet to be implicated in a single crash. Indeed, the FAA itself has, albeit grudgingly, admitted that there is no evidence to suggest that inflight electronics have been responsible for accidents: the New York Times quotes an FAA spokesman as saying “There have never been any reported accidents from these kinds of devices on planes.”

So maybe the issue is not specifically electronic, but more broadly mechanical. When the “fasten seat belts” sign goes on during heavy turbulence, an iPad could, in theory, be thrown from a passenger’s hand and become a lethal projectile. The laws of physics don’t entirely agree with this argument, though — the kind of turbulence that is invoked in discussions such as this tends to be vertical, rather than horizontal, rendering iPads rather harmless. And if we’re banning electronic devices on this basis, what about other heavy objects, such as books? I have little doubt that the banning of books on flights would lead to major passenger resentment — there would be riots in the aisles. And again, it’s not like the FAA states this as a problem — the claim is always that the regulations exist to prevent electronic interference with avionics.

When I talked about this on Radio New Zealand’s Nine To Noon program [7] in December 2011, the topic generated more email from listeners than any other subject I have discussed on the show, with many comments coming from pilots who are concerned that, if there is currently a ban and there are no crashes, then best to leave well enough alone. But, speaking as a commercial pilot and a physics teacher, as well as an avid user of innumerable electronic devices over the years, I am strongly of the opinion that this is a rule that has outlived its usefulness (if it ever had any). I’m hopeful that the FAA’s invitation of input from the public will result in a modernisation of rules that are so out-of-date that they suggest that “portable voice recorders” are cutting-edge technology.

[Steve McCabe is a British-born Mac consultant, tech writer, and teacher who now, for reasons that have but the most tangential connection to technology, lives in New Zealand. He writes about his adventures in New Zealand [8] and blogs about tech [9]. Steve’s first novel, “Crash Landing [10],” based loosely on his experiences learning to fly — when he’s not teaching or computing, Steve is also a multi-engine instrument-rated commercial pilot — is now available in paperback.]