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Why Do Airlines Require Us to Turn Off Our Gadgets?

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 and blogs about tech. Steve’s first novel, “Crash Landing,” 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.]


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Comments about Why Do Airlines Require Us to Turn Off Our Gadgets?
(Comments are closed.)

It is along the same lines as people that cross their heart before doing some task. It is a false sense of security that has absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the situation but still makes you somehow feel a bit better about things.
Paul S  2012-10-05 10:51
Think about the potential harm of PEDs (personal electronic devices) during a take off or landing incident as loose objects in the cabin? What if people had these objects in hand during an emergency evacuation? Do some research and discover reports of being trying to take personal belongings with them during an emergency evacuation. How many passengers would take the PEDs with them sine they are already in hand? I would suggest allowing the use of PEDs after takeoff until the descent below 10,000 ft to allow time to power them off and stow prior to landing. PGS, 767 Captain, retired.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-05 10:52
That is why airlines ban reading hardcover novels during takeoff and landing which can weigh several times that of a tablet.

Wait — they don't!
I think its in the interest of the general public to turn that stuff off. If not, I can almost guarantee that no one would listen to the safety briefing. People would be too busy playing angry birds. In another 5 years the public might learn to be a little more considerate. Lets take movies for example .......annoying. others peoples children just can't he trusted to have any etiquette or consideration for others.
Like smoking, PEDs should be banned entirely. And tampering with or disabling the ERS (electronic radiation sensor) in the toilet should equally be a federal felony. Enough of these dangerous, safety impinging activities on flights! Enjoy the scenery for Christ's sake!

SF – not a pilot but a very concerned aeroplane passenger.
Indy Bob  2012-10-05 10:29
Few people now listen to the safety briefing. But if yours is the right reason, the FAA should just say so, rather than purpose an inaccurate reason: "Please don't use any of your electronic stuff on this plane because we say so- and we ARE the FAA."
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-05 10:58
I have to admit to ignoring the safety briefing at this point. After you've heard it for the hundredth time (and you know to look for the clearly marked exits), it's hard to see how paying attention is going to make you any safer.

Once you've flown enough, you know how to put a seatbelt on, and if the plane depressurizes, the oxygen masks will drop automatically, and how you should affix your mask before assisting others, and how the bag may not appear to inflate but oxygen is flowing... and so on.

Obviously, for anyone who is new to flying, or uncertain in any way, the safety instructions are important. But there's no way frequent flyers are going to pay attention unless there's a song and dance too (the best safety instructions I've ever heard have been the ones given by wannabe comedians - when they're funny, and different, you pay more attention).
Agreed that most of use are familiar with emergency exits and how to fasten a seat belt etc. However, how are you going to "qualify" frequent fliers? Its kind of like an open container in a car.....sure most people could probably drive and drink one or two beers can't trust the general have to make rules in the interest of keeping them safe. I can already see the lawsuits...."passenger sues airline after emergency landing for not ensuring they were properly briefed.
When a phone is in sleep mode aren't you turning off the cellular radio(I know most phones can still keep wifi and bluetooth on still). I work in the airline industry and i have heard a safety briefing probably 20 bagillion times....but I still have enough respect for flight attendants to give them my attention for 5 minutes. I hate when people are on their phones while giving an order at mcdonalds.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-05 17:06
I'm not suggesting that safety briefings should be skipped or that that the airlines should even imply that you can tune out if you've heard it a bazillion times. But I am saying that the reality is that people who have heard it repeatedly do not usually pay attention.

And while I tend to agree about paying attention to the actual flight attendants, because it's rude to ignore people, when they're just showing a film on the TV, I find myself tuning out. And regardless of whether you tune out or not, it's simply unacceptable to do anything during that time that interferes with anyone else paying attention.
Nicholas Barnard  2012-10-05 11:19
This is tangental, but I make a point of paying attention to the safety briefing. The flight attendants are there for my safety, not my drink order. The least I can do is provide them the respect of a little attention.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-05 10:36
The point is that airlines cite radio interference as the danger. If it has to do with attention, they should say as much. What Steve points out, and I agree, is that the rules are outdated.

Regulators could say, "The use of electronics below 10,000 feet poses an unacceptable danger due to distraction and as projectiles." Then we could argue whether that's worthwhile. But they don't. They cite it as an risk to avionics.
My devices don't go off - they go into silent mode!

As an electrical engineer and avid reader of science and tech... I have always found this rule to be ridiculous. And in all my years of outright ignoring it, I have not yet downed a plane.
And you sir, have consideration for others and unfortunately are in the minority. Lets face it, we are not riding a bus. If turning off your phone would force one person to listen up to the emergency briefing(save one life)then its still worth it to me. You can read google news 5 minutes after take off , at 10k feet or risk being alec baldwin'ed
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-05 10:37
On recent flights, the flight attendants have specifically explained devices must be fully powered down, and even how. This is ridiculous, of course, because they don't check, and my fellow passengers simply put them to sleep, which means they keep generating radio signals.
JohnB (SciFiOne)   2012-10-05 12:40
They cannot be fully shut off anyway. At a minimum, the clock keeps going. Even my Nano keeps time when supposedly off.
Kendall  2012-10-06 14:16
This recent change in description is absurd. People "turn off" the devices by turning off the screen (hopefully already put into airplane mode). E.g., no one holds their iPhone button for several seconds and swipes to power off. And my impression is that the rules haven't changed, why are they now making it sound like suddenly we have to do a REAL power off (versus turn off screen/put away), when we've never had to before? Baffling, pointless, and kinda confusing.
Why Do Airlines Require Us to Turn Off Our Gadgets?

Because they can!
Scott Rose  2012-10-05 10:38
I think this rule has more to do with people paying attention & not being distracted during the most critical parts of the flight, when they might be needed to follow directions for a possible emergency landing.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-05 11:03
That's fine, but then the FAA is lying to us. If that's the reason, why not tell the truth? And why not ban hardcovers on laps, too?
Besides the safety values, pretty much everybody has missed the point. In the days of yore, cell phones were analog with a transmitting range of 5 to 8 miles. Did I say “CELL” phone? Yes, they are called “cell” phones, because of the way the radio frequency spectrum of the phones is utilized. A particular set of frequencies is allocated to a transmission site, the next site has a different set of frequencies, the next site then can reuse the frequencies of the first site, as in “cells”, got it. So, here we are flying at 2000 feet, our cell phones now can trip 5, 6, 7 or more sites, and that is whether you are talking on them or not. So 180 people in your plane, plus few hundred more or possibly thousand of live cell phones all acting like 5 to 10 times as many cell phones. Now nearly all phones are digital and the number of usable frequencies has increased from 842 to thousands. But even with this huge increase in bandwidth, some of you know what it is like to try and make a call on New Year’s Eve when everybody is on their cell phones and the system locks up. Think about it.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-05 11:03
There's been some research into whether this happens on airplanes, and it's a bit of a myth, too, that the FCC and FAA and others put out to discourage use of phones.

And, again, if that were the reason, the FAA and FCC could explain it.

Finally, because most people put their phones into sleep instead of powered down (or airplane mode), this means that the phones are every bit as active in trying to talk to towers as if they were awake. As a result, if there were real widespread problems, 100,000s of phones aloft above the U.S. every day should have triggered them already.
Nicholas Barnard  2012-10-05 11:23
What is the battery life of a phone at 20,000 feet like? I'd presume that even if there was no safety or system performance reason, you'd want to put your phone into flight mode to preserve its battery, since it likely will be transmitting at a higher power level. Especially, since the flat panel cell phone antennas aren't pointing up.
Jeremy Roussak  2012-10-05 11:05
The ban has nothing to do with aircraft electronics. If my iPhone, with a 3.7V battery, can take down a commercial jet, then shame on the airplane manufacturers. Keep in mind that these same planes get hit by lightning all the time.
Theodore Shaw  2012-10-13 09:36
Consider me in agreement with Jeremy. Even if a cell phone were able to transmit on the same frequency as aircraft systems, it would be completely drowned out, since one, or even several, cell phone transmitters cannot overcome the power of the equipment being used by the aircraft. And I'm not sold on the possibility of interference crossing the frequency spectrum--it's broken into chunks for a reason, so that different systems can operate free of interference from others. Additionally, if our PEDs were so hazardous to aircraft, think how little we'd get done when they're in close proximity to each other! We know for certain that there are a lot more PEDs in our hands nowadays than when the IEEE study was done in 2003. If there were any problems in the real world with interference from PEDs, we'd see the problems in the news.

While I pooh pooh the technical issues as the reason for the ban, I'm in agreement with those who say the rules are there to control the behavior of people. Probably not a bad idea for a few minutes of relatively uninterrupted attention at the beginning and end of the flight, especially so that the aircrew can tell those who don't pay attention to raise their seat-back, properly stow bags, and to stay seated until the plane has stopped moving.
Nicholas Barnard  2012-10-05 11:33
So, presuming that the FAA throws the door wide open for electronic devices, I'm curious what the rules will be after that?

I can see an argument for allowing iPods, iPads, Apple TV and iPhone in flight mode below 10k but not allowing laptop use as the form factor of a laptop is more disruptive to an evacuation than a tablet. Sure that hardback copy of The Stand that Glenn keeps suggesting that everyone reads while the plane is taking off will get mangled in an evacuation, it will remain relatively flat, it can be stepped on, and it won't stand on its end for long by itself.

Laptops on the other hand have a hinge that might be opened and can stand on their end in a nice L shape, won't go completely flat immediately (presumably, I'll admit to not standing on my Aluminum MacBook's keyboard and screen at the same time, so I'm lacking data points.) and laptops can be huge, moreso than that Unabridged Hardback Dictionary that Glenn keeps carrying onto the plane.

So, my prediction? No laptops until 10k, but iPads, iPods and iPhones in flight mode will be allowed.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-05 12:11
Really, they just need to ask people to keep anything larger than a paperback or iPad/tablet/Kindle tucked away, which would cover all that.
In my opinion, it is prevention of sorts to control a bomb. Cell phones do emit a "noise" in the audio that the crew can detect. The cell phone does not as far as I know interfere with anything. I have been on a flight that would not depart until all devices were off. And I can only imagine the anger generated with the very rude users yelling into the phone during an already painful flight experience. IMHO
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-05 12:10
The crew cannot detect anything. There is no gear in the cockpit that allows that detection.

On the bomb front: if that were true, we wouldn't be allowed to take phones on (or any electronic gear) at all.

When they tell you they won't depart until "all devices are off," they have no way to determine that. I have heard pilots claim that they have a piece of equipment to shame people. It's a lie.
I really don't know why the restriction except for the rude factor. But you can hear the noise a cell phone makes when it searches for a tower in the audio system. It is not very loud. And almost every flight crew uses the IPad! Most of the time when I fly commercial the announcement is made but no real enforcement unless the pax are really stupid and rude.
Pete B  2012-10-05 12:40
I pity the person who can't turn off their device for 5-10 minutes, relax, and enjoy the ride/view. Seek help.
Jeremy Roussak  2012-10-05 13:37
My itunes and noise cancelling headphones are what allow me to relax and the enjoy the ride.
Pete B  2012-10-05 15:11
Can't wait 5-10 minutes? So sad.
Nicholas Barnard  2012-10-06 15:35
I also suspect that if electronic devices are allowed during all phases, headphones won't be allowed during takeoff and landing.

Why? Its a safety thing the flight crew must be able to making announcements, shout instructions, etc and have a fair chance of being heard. The FAA allows built in IFE systems to be used, because they automatically mute or switch to the PA audio when the PA is used.

Takeoff and landings are the most dangerous phases of flight, so while reading anything should be fine as far as passenger attention, listening with headphones is going to impede the flight crew commanding passengers' attention. (That is until we have FAA certified headsets that magically interrupt your audio when there is a PA announcement.)
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-05 17:09
I don't mind takeoffs, but I've had plenty of landings that were just nasty, and where anything that would take my mind off how awful I feel is helpful.

And remember, it's often not 5-10 minutes. One of the last times I flew, we sat on the runway for over an hour, not being able to use electronics because of these regulations. I read everything within reach during that time (I always bring magazines for takeoff and landing times). It's hard to believe we were being protected from anything while sitting still on the runway.
Randy Spydell  2012-10-05 17:07
It is the long antiquated and largely unjustified continuing regulations that teach Americans to distrust the government and ignore regulations that an individual may deem "don't make sense." So, the FAA (and other regulatory agencies) that don't review and justify their regulations on a reasonable basis are doing a grave disservice to their own credibility and the general credibility of all government agencies.
The iPads in the cockpit do not have wi-fi active. But in a plane with dozens or hundreds of tech device users, there is no way to be certain that radio transmitters are OFF from every passenger. So, all devices need to be turned off. Yes, devices and more so, aircraft design is more hardened to this issue, not ALL aircraft are this new. So, again, to be safe, the rule covers all planes.

Besides all the technical and management issues confronting the FAA and the airlines, what bugs me is that why can’t the tech nuts - who want to turn on a smart phone/pad/laptop the whole time on a plane - *cannot* just take a break ONCE IN A WHILE during take off and landing?!

What is wrong with you?!
all devices need to be turned off

Then--as multiple people have repeatedly said--WHY DON'T THEY ACTUALLY MAKE SURE WE DO THAT?
Steve McCabe  2012-10-06 03:39
Because, in the end, It Doesn't Really Matter. Cabin crew take it on trust that devices are turned off. They don't police this requirement in any meaningful way, because, as I've written, planes are failing to fall out of the sky at a quite amazing rate, despite ongoing flouting of the rule.

Of course, this is not, in any way, security theatre. That would be wrong.
Nicholas Barnard  2012-10-06 15:36
The FAA probably issued new regulations and/or guidance which the Airlines have to implement. By making the announcement they're covered and have done their duty.
I was on a flight where a guy was using a MacBook on takeoff! I told the flight attendent when she came by and she DID go after the guy and give him talking to. It is hard for them to see these people since they are in the jump seats at one end and flights are so crowded.
In private aircraft with WiFi available the crew and passengers are on often. There are 2 kinds of WiFi available, 1 above 10,000 feet based on cell towers and the other available from Satellite useable all the time. No issues for the aircraft.
These are individual craft that have been checked out for hardening. They also fall under different rules compared to commercial.
For commercial with built in wi-fi, I guess, the FAA will, one day, remove that restriction on at least those flights.
Dave Sacher  2012-10-05 20:47
Portable voice recorders are okay, you say? Well, then, just add a microphone attachment to your iPod, iPhone or iPad, install a basic recording app - and you should be "street-legal" and good-to-go! :-)
Steve McCabe  2012-10-06 01:26
Yes, portable voice recorders are OK. But, curiously, digital watches aren't. Douglas Adams would be most amused.
I wonder if the digital watches has to do with the old watches with pagers built in? So they just say, don’t use your “watch” at takeoff and landing… covers it.
Kevan Pegley  2012-10-06 04:21
My understanding has been for some while that the issue is paying attention and being alert and able to hear and understand instructions during the critical phases of flight -- which is why the inflight entertainment isn't turned on either (even until the aircraft reaches cruising level on some airlines).

But the overwhelmingly salient point arising from this state of affairs is the one made by Randy Spydell. If authorities want to be trusted and respected they need to issue regulations that are honest and properly explained. If there is a good societal reason for proscribing or requiring some behaviour, surely the best way to ensure compliance is to explain the reason. If the public do not know the reason, or are intelligent and informed enough -- as in the case of this topic -- to suspect that the reason is false, they are not going to be terribly bothered whether they obey the regulation.

This applies to all authorities and all regulations! Explain it and they will follow.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-06 12:51
The first part — if that were true, we'd be required and vetted to put down our books, remove headphones, and open our eyes. In-flight audio is available during takeoff and landing! On some flights I've been on, seatback video is available well below 10,000 feet, too.

But, yes, honesty. That's what we need here.
I have always been under the impression that the main reason for shutting down devices is to make sure passengers aren't completely tuned out or distracted during the time of flight when emergency instructions are most likely to be given.

One flight attendant pointed out to me that if everyone's phone was on during a takeoff/landing emergency than half the cabin would be filming or tweeting the situation in the middle of the crisis instead of listening to instructions. By requiring devices be turned off it at least decreases the number of distracted passengers.

Either way, if this is the reason, I think most people are smart enough to understand it and don't need to be faked out by the "electronic interference" threat.
pedant  2012-10-07 17:54
Everyone keeps talking about how their iPad doesn't cause a problem. The FAA are concerned that someone will bring a shitty shameless Chinese xPaD1 clone that pays lip service to FCC regs but actually blasts right across all radio spectrum.

They can't "ban by brand", and they can't inspect every single device. So they have a general rule that inconveniences everyone for 5 minutes.
Peter T  2012-10-08 21:27
Qantas is trialling iPads on one of its 767s as a replacement for the usual in-flight entertainment system. They clearly have a custom setup and of course must be off at take-off and landing. However on turning one on halfway between Sydney and Brisbane the icon at the top of the screen clearly showed that it had connected to the Telstra cellphone network. Same for the passenger in the seat next to me. Do as I say, not as I do?
R Stephenson  2012-10-08 22:24
What I've been told is that the only reason cell phones are restricted on flights is that the plane is going so fast that calls can't be tracked by the cells and calls can't be charged, i.e. air travelers can end up making free calls! The cell companies can't charge their customers and, therefore, the companies insist on these restrictions in order to prevent customers from making free calls! Is this true? (We know that cell phones will work on airplanes, given the calls made from the doomed planes on 9-11.)
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-08 23:35
That cannot be correct. For a phone to associate with a cellular network, it has to provide a unique identifier, such as the one built into the SIM card in a GSM-based phone. A negotiation takes place between the phone and a base station to assign frequencies or time slots. The phone is absolutely tracked.
Nicholas Barnard  2012-10-09 00:03
I've heard this, but I think it had to do with the old AMPS systems. Basically the concern was that the cell phone would be able to transmit to too many towers at the same time, and it'd confuse the network.

It may have been a problem, but I'm quite sure that there isn't anymore as there are cell phones powered on on commercial flights all the time, if there were problems the cell carriers would be all over it..

They're definitely powered on phones in non-commercial flights, as I've heard pilot friends of mine discuss making calls from the air..
although they may claim it is because of FAA regulations, for the airline staff this is really about control. even if FAA allows the use, i bet the flight staff unions will fight this. what they want is to keep everyone focused enough to get in their seats, with everything put away as they are supposed to do.

it is chaos when the plane gets loaded up. by limiting what passengers can do in this process, creates a sense of calm and focus on the briefing. then, after everyone is calmed down, and some thousands of feet of elevation, then people can turn things on as they want.

but if they allow all these gadgets from the start, they will never get this, and the chaos will reign throughout the flight.

inversely, they are idiots to not let the passengers use these items when stuck on the tarmac for hours. but they are about rules and control.
Michael Kluskens  2012-10-09 10:04
To truly understand why electronics and airplanes should not be mixed you need to have serious experience in Electromagnetic Interference, not just physics. The airplane electronics operate over frequency bands trying to receive very weak signals plus the cables are additional portals to the electronics. Your electronics transmit all sorts of radio frequency signals and not just at the stated frequency. Transmitting devices blast energy over a wide frequency band. Filters are limited to avoid losing too much signal. There have been reported cases of pilots seeing instruments malfunction and then recover when a passenger turns off a device. You would have to test each device everywhere in the cabin every half-foot or less given the typical frequencies. Just like hot spots in your microwave the cabin has hot spots. Perhaps you wouldn't mind if naval ships didn't turn off their radar near your coast or port and blast your cell phones. It's all about signal levels and EMI.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-09 10:21
"There have been reported cases of pilots seeing instruments malfunction and then recover when a passenger turns off a device": Over 15 years, there are a handful of such cases, and they are not reproducible as well as being anecdotal.

Millions of people fly each year, and we know perfectly well that phones are left on (and even actively used) during every flight. If there were problems such as you describe, they would be causing problems on nearly every flight. They do not.
David Weeks  An apple icon for a TidBITS Patron 2012-10-09 10:46
Adam wrote:

"Once you've flown enough, you know how to put a seatbelt on, and if the plane depressurizes, the oxygen masks will drop automatically, and how you should affix your mask before assisting others, and how the bag may not appear to inflate but oxygen is flowing... and so on."

Adam, you may recall that I'm an Airbus captain for a major US airline.

Sure, frequent travelers know that "the oxygen mask will not inflate, but oxygen will be flowing," and other useful information.

But what EVERY traveler should do, and I do when I ride in back, as soon as I sit down, is to count the number of rows between you and the NEAREST exit (not the door you entered through).

This forces to you to look around, and figure out where you want to go in case of an emergency evacuation. You need to know in advance, not when smoke has filled the cabin.

That, in my opinion, is the most important bit of information a passenger can have.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-09 10:54
I always do that. Makes me calmer during the flight because I've done the only thing in my control to make it more likely in the unlikely event of an accident that I'll be able to get out (and help others to get out).

Once I've done everything I can do, I relax and let the pilot do his or her thing.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-09 11:02
Excellent - and realistic - advice, David, thanks! I agree, and although I hadn't thought of counting explicitly, I've always made a point of figuring out where the exists are when I get on, since that's the one thing that's really different for each plane and even each seat.
Andrew Edsor  2012-10-09 13:48
Unfortunately I'm an avionics engineer who's had to deal with the complexities of Electro Magnetic Interference (EMI) and Electro Magnetic Compatibility (EMC). This article does nothing to encourage the reader to think more knowledgeably or thoughtfully about the problem.

I could be a cynic and point out that the thoughts of a pilot on safety are probably not that useful as the majority of accidents are caused by pilots :D

Meanwhile, back to Flight Level 390...
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-09 14:34
I have to disagree, in that the reader is encouraged to use logic. If the in-flight, below or above 10,000-foot use of personal electronics, including cell phones, posed an actual risk to navigation or airplane function, such behavior should be happening hundreds of times to day because every flight in most of the world has multiple, if not dozens, of active cellular and electronic gear.

This hasn't been studied in a rigorous or extensive way with cooperation of airlines, airline makers, and governments since an IEEE report from 2006 that is based on 2003 research.

If it's provable, it should be evident now on many flights, every day.
Andrew Edsor  2012-10-10 05:50
May be I should e-mail you and Adam with a lengthier explanation of my disagreement. Your reply demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about the whole process.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-10 09:14
Please do - we're happy to hear more about this from your perspective. It would be even better if we could also get an FAA spokesperson to weigh in to explain their side of the story.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-10 10:23
I'd be interested in it, but you're conflating two things in my mind. The theory and practice of how you design and test in this space, and the practical experience of what is actually happening. If it were a true problem for devices to be used in ways the FAA prohibits, then we would be seeing the effects.
Naomi Pearce  2012-10-09 13:56
In the article, the assumption of an electronic device and the corresponding radiation constituting the primary relevant issues, practically ignores the main related issues involved in take-off and landing, in particular flightcrew bandwidth and entitled customer attitudes. Human focus issues are the cited ones in the FAA fact sheets, not electronic issues.

Entitled customer attitudes come into play for a "some electronics are more equal than others" scenario; and flightcrew bandwidth is critical at take-off and landing. I'm pretty sure it's about the people and not the electronics, and far more efficient to instruct passengers to disengage from electronic devices globally, during the higher risk minutes of take-off and landing.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-09 15:02
I continue to bang the drum that it is perfectly reasonable to consider the non-technical issues. However, as Steve points out, the FAA, airlines, and other regulators cite technical issues which are unproven.

If the FAA believes it's unsafe to allow the use of electronics because it's distracting or they could become projectiles, they could just say that and be honest about it.

When you are being lied to, it's easier to disregard any portion of truth. The FAA could instruct airlines to restrict the use of electronic devices with a message that says, "The FAA requires all electronic devices be powered down or in standby mode and placed in a carry-on bag or, for smaller devices, in your pocket. This is to prevent distraction during takeoff and landing, and reduce the chance if turbulence of a device harming yourself, crew, or other passengers."

Instead, it's a smokescreen of unproven science. Also, why not ban books and magazines at takeoff and landing?

(And are you surprised by passengers' attitudes? There has never been a less pleasant time to fly, and passengers respond with passive-aggressive and just aggressive-aggressive behavior toward the gate agents and flight crew, the only parts of the airline that they interact with.)
The fact that dozens to hundreds of devices are used per flight with no reported consequences suggests it’s safe to use electronics. Humans are the problem. During takeoffs and landings, hands should be free and minds focused on the cabin so that if we need to evacuate, we won’t be focusing on other things. Most people can be counted on to ignore the first announcement of a problem. At the second announcement, most will scramble to protect their $500 gadgets rather than paying attention. This is why the TV screens are off during takeoff and landing. The same idiots who text or use their phone while driving will do the same during an unplanned descent, endangering themselves and everyone around them.
The FAA should be up-front about this, but they can hardly tell hundreds of people per flight they’re untrustworthy idiots. There’s no way to explain the need to pay attention in case of a crash without freaking out the many who are uneasy about flying. And you can’t just ban devices without an explanation. It’s a tricky problem in risk communication, with no easy solution.
In reading all the comments here, I am realizing this has more to do with the distance between the careful and all too slow movement of a massive federal agency and the endless impatience and privilege of the tech world.
Why not turn your stuff off in flight as a time for yourself with no tech, to let your brain rest and meditate? Then, no worries at all! Paper books work fine too.
I have read the above comments with some degree of amazement. I travel for work 2-3 times a week.

1. My understanding of the restriction is to do with ensuring that if an emergency announcement comes over the PA, people are not plugged into sound systems independent of the aircraft ones (which cut out when announcements come in). This seems like an eminently reasonable thing to request of passengers.

2. I struggle to understand the level of outrage (evidenced by use of the term "lying" for example) shown here. Admittedly here in Oz we have ridiculous security theatre as well, but the attacks on the FCC/FAA seem very personal.

3. No one on either side of the argument has cited any properly reviewed studies into any of the claims. Yawn.

4. We live in a highly ritualistic society. Why is this ritual causing so much grief?

5. In the scheme of things, who cares? I'd love to see the energy on display here going into say the local soup kitchen to help the homeless.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-10 01:30
1. People are not required to remove headphones attached to airline sound systems (which only cut out for the safety announcement). People also may have huge hardcover and other stuff in their laps.

2. No one likes to be treated like a mental incompetent. The government agencies already push credulity with security theatre; why let them get away with this?

3. There's a reason for that. The industry and regulators allowed a very detailed studied to be conducted in 2003 (published in 2006), and have avoided studying it since in order to perpetuate nonsense. It's unclear why.

1. People are not required to remove headphones attached to the aircraft's system precisely because it cuts out for any announcement from the cabin crew. Given that I've said it twice and you've said it once, I think we are in agreement on this :-)

I made no comments about objects in laps, so unclear why you raised it here.

2. That's a far more useful response that banging on about them lying. I now understand your position, but disagree with how you choose to represent it.
[Edit: Updated due to me misreading Glenn's response and having a bit of a brainfade]

3. Out of interest, could you point to the 2006 study please?

Still keen on your thoughts on my points 4 and 5.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-10 09:02
With regard to rituals, just because something is done repeatedly doesn't mean it is welcome, good, or seen as useful. If anything, I'd argue that negative rituals are seen as all the more negative because they repeat so frequently. They grate on the nerves.

And as for who cares, I think those people who would prefer that our lives be regulated by science care, anyone who has been stuck on a runway for an hour or more without anything to distract from the unpleasant environment cares, and anyone who is desperately trying to distract themselves from throwing up during a bumpy descent cares.

The simple fact of the matter is that flying is at best a neutral experience. It's never a good experience, and it doesn't take much (delays, cancellations, nausea-inducing turbulence, cramped and smelly bathrooms, tight quarters, screaming babies, inedible food, annoying fellow passengers, lost luggage) to turn it into a very bad experience.

For better or worse, our personal electronic devices have become our preferred solutions to times when we are otherwise restricted from acting as we would like. They're distractions from boredom and pacifiers for the anger that often wells up when we're in a bad situation that's completely out of our control.

Don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with books and magazines for the same purpose, but since so many people have transferred that reading to an iPhone, iPad, or Kindle, it's not at all surprising that we wouldn't want to return to the real-world versions for no good reason.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-10 10:21
1. I misread your point! But the issue many have raised is about distraction. Thus, books count, too.

3. : The study is quite good, but the conclusions at the end are unfounded, and, after 9 years (the data were collected in 2003) haven't been borne out.

1. No, my point was about not being able to hear announcements due to audio stream not cutting out. Yes, others have raised the point of distraction, but not me, hence I disagree that books count in terms of addressing my point.

3. I came across the following article: . The key point I took out of this is: the FAA want to test and certify every combination of hardware with every type of plane. This raises in itself two further points:

a. Is it reasonable to expect people to be able to accurately consult a lookup table matching their hardware and type of plane should such a certification exist?
b. Is the FAA being overzealous in terms of reducing risk?

For me, on point a. I would not trust members of the general public to accurately read a lookup table with 100% accuracy over say 180-odd seats in a typical 737 configuration.

Point b? That's too subjective :-)

Still keen on your thoughts on my points 4 and 5.
BTW, I ran out of characters in my earlier reply. Many thanks for linking to the IEEE article. Appreciate it.

Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-11 09:25
My feeling is that there is no realistic way that a test matrix of planes and devices could ever be constructed or completed, not the least because far too many new devices come out all the time. And if nothing else, we've seen only one real study done in the last 10 years - how could the FAA come up with the ooomph to start in on a massive and unending test program?

I would love to see an update on the IEEE study that would determine how many devices are actually in use on planes - and how the number of incidents has changed - these days, since I would surmise that many more devices are used when they shouldn't be over the last 5-10 years.
Agree on your first par.

BTW, just last week on a flight between HBA and MEL we hit turbulence, the seatbelt sign came on, and the purser asked that all PEDs were switched off and remain off until the seatbelt light was switched off.

What I am still struggling with is that we are talking the first and last 10-15 minutes of a flight. It's 20-30 minutes overall where people are bring asked to switch off their phones. I am struggling to think of a use case where it is essential that someone in transit on a plane HAS to have their phone/PED on all of the time.

So I come back to my original point 5 -- who cares? Or, to expand slightly, can anyone provide a use case where this request really impinges on personal freedoms that much?
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-11 19:52
3. It's pretty out of date, partly because the FAA, FCC, and RTCA haven't commissioned new studies since 2003. On point a and b: not precisely. It's just pretending like the situation that exists today does not exist!

4 + 5: too subjective! I won't comment.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-11 19:59
My entire issue here is that: I'm fine with there being legitimate reasons for devices to be turned off and stowed. I simply want them to be stated. When regulatory agents treat science like magic, it's disturbing.
Not many (if any) comments here about the basic problem of the effective use of the phone (calling or receiving calls) by passengers during flights: My peace of mind is at stake.
I cannot imagine a flight, be it a short or a long one, with dozens of people talking together on their phones.
I already experience that during many stand-by on tarmac or during the taxiing before the take-off. I can't stand it. Period.
Entering a plane (a rather quite small, narrow, cramped and confined space) I find it perfectly normal that my behaviour there should be adapted, restricted and controlled accordingly.
And the ban on the use of phones during flights suits me totally.
Moving from technical grounds to behavioral ones, I am ready to accept any reason airlines (or FAA) would present to enforce that rule: "Dear and beloved passengers, please switch-off your phones!"
Todd Olson  2012-10-10 14:14
Personal experience. 1989. 747. USA to Japan. Air is smooth. Plane goes bump. Shortly cabin crew came to a group near my seat who were taking group pictures of each other. They setup up an experiment, co-ordinated with the pilots. The passanger took a picture. The plane went bump! My sense was that the pilots confirmed taking a picture caused a wing control to twitch, making the bump. Those passangers were asked to not use their camera.

What has changed between 1989 and now? Both in the planes and in the devices we carry?
Steve McCabe  2012-10-11 14:15
Probably the biggest change since 1989 is that cameras are now digital — I'd be most surprised if your fellow passengers were shooting a digital, not a film, camera.

I have no idea what wing control could make a plane "bump;" I know this is a layman's account and I shouldn't be too precious about perfectly accurate terminology, but it takes a *lot* to make a 747 do *anything* (those things are huge). I do find it odd, then, that the flight crew would be willing to conduct an in-flight experiment to cause an uncommanded excursion large enough to be that noticeable.

Even if your recollection, reporting and interpretation of this event are perfectly accurate, it's still one, single, isolated event, with no clearly defined cause. Was the camera at fault — would the same thing happen on all 747s? Was the plane at fault — did it need new shielding on its wiring?

We need a *much* more systematic review of the issue, rather than relying on anecdote, even a quite interesting one like this.
Yeah, I've made and posted a couple of take off and landing videos while aboard a Boeing 717. Plane functioned safely in all phases.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-11-01 11:02
If airline safety presentations were as good as this one, everyone would watch. :-)