Dec 23 2011

Using Electronic Devices In-Flight

I fly a few times a year, mostly to conferences. There is a certain amount of tedious routine to flying now – at check-in you have to bring your own bag over to the security scanner, then you have to make your way through the gauntlet of security and hope that you are not randomly selected for further screening, or that you forgot about that tube of toothpaste in your carry-on. Once you make your way to the gate you have to listen for your zone, and once on the plane there is the struggle to find good overhead space to stow your stuff. If traveling in a group there is often the game of musical chairs to see who will sit next to whom, and if traveling alone there is the minor anxiety about the personal characteristics of the people sitting next to you. Add a couple of children to the experience and the complexity of the whole operation increases significantly.

Once I settle into my seat all I want to do is lose myself in some activity, inevitably involving a personal electronic device, and let the hours of airline captivity pass as quickly as possible. I read books on an e-reader, play games, listen to podcasts or music, or watch movies on my iPad or iPod, or even my Android cell phone. Occasionally (depending on how long the flight is) I might even whip out my laptop, expanding my electronic options further.

It is therefore highly annoying and inconvenient when the flight attendant makes their rounds prior to liftoff to tell me to turn off all electronic devices – all the way off. Airline mode is not sufficient. My annoyance is increased by the fact that I seriously doubt this is truly necessary. Sure – it’s only 5-10 minutes on takeoff, and the last 10-15 prior to landing, but it is an unwelcome interruption to my electronic distractions. I can only flip through Sky Mall so many times as an alternate.

So a recent Scientific American article on the topic caught my interest. They outline what we know and don’t know about the use of personal electronic devices (PED) on airplanes. I did some digging and found the same information everywhere I looked. It seems everyone is getting their information from the FAA. Here is a summary of what I found:

We can divide portable electronic devices (PEDs) into two categories – those that deliberately transmit EM signals and those that don’t. In the former category we have cell phones and wi-fi devices, in the latter we have everything else.┬áLet me deal with everything else first. The bottom line here is that there is no evidence for a safety concern with such devices and there is no theoretical reason why such devices would be a risk to the operation of the electronic equipment on the plane. This includes devices operating in airplane mode.

The justification for requiring that all such devices be turned off is the cautionary principle – unless the airlines can prove that use of a particular device is safe in a particular model of plane at all phases of operation, they have decided to prohibit their use (at least during the critical parts of the flight – take off and landing) to err on the side of safety. Certainly I agree with erring on the side of safety when it comes to flying aircraft. The reason that I have to turn off my iPod, that does not have any wi-fi or cell phone capability, is that the airlines figure they cannot trust all their passengers to know if their PED transmits or not, or that they can successfully implement airplane mode. But people generally understand when a device is off, so that is what they require.

While I understand the need, when it comes to safety, to adjust to the lowest level of understanding, I can’t help but feel personally annoyed that I cannot use a device I know must be safe. I also feel that the airlines could make the effort to demonstrate the safety of certain PEDs so that they can be used. There could, in fact, be a collaboration between the PED industries and airlines to certify specific devices for in-flight use, and label them as such. Therefore passengers could be told that they have to turn off any device that is not FAA certified as safe. There could be a little airline-safe symbol on the outside of all acceptable devices, that you can flash to the flight attendant as they stroll by before take-off.

Since the theoretical risk of devices that do not deliberately transmit is so low, I think it is worth making the extra effort to allow their unrestricted use.

What about cell phones and other deliberate transmitters? Here there is a solid theoretical reason to be concerned. These devices emit signals at a distance and in frequencies that can interfere with electronic equipment. However, the evidence that they actually do so on aircraft is entirely anecdotal. There were 88 reports of apparent PED-related anomalies between 1986 and 1999. If even a small portion of these actually put the flights at risk, that is a serious risk and warrants action. However- the evidence that these anomalies were related to PED use is purely circumstantial – an anomaly was detected, and a passenger was noted to be using a cell phone.

Ground tests have not verified or reproduced such equipment anomalies from cell phones. There are no airline accidents that can be positively attributed to use of PEDs or specifically cell phones. In modern planes the critical equipment, like the navigational system, is heavily shielded from outside EM signals. Older planes are admittedly more vulnerable.

However – the world-wide consensus of airlines and regulators is to be cautious, as even a single crash from cell phone use is unacceptable. Essentially they are considered unsafe until proven safe. According to an ABC report, airlines and the FAA have simply not deemed it a worthwhile investment to prove that cell phone use is safe, and therefore default to the position of banning their use.


Here are my final conclusions:

– PEDs that do not deliberately transmit are very likely to be safe for use at all times during flight, and airlines should make the effort to work with PED manufacturers to certify devices safe for use in flight.

– PEDs that deliberate transmit signals are probably safe, but have not been proven to be so, and until we have more evidence for safety a ban on their use seems reasonable.

– However – airlines could allow the use of such devices in airplane mode, and make device manufacturers prove that their airplane modes are safe.

– More study may find that the use of such devices is safe, and I think the public would generally find it worthwhile to invest in such research.

– Meanwhile – if there is a risk from transmitting PEDs then the best option would be for aircraft manufacturers to make their aircraft safe from such devices by using sufficient shielding and other technologies. If a cell phone can bring down a plane I’m not sure I want to trust all my fellow passengers to comply with regulations. I would rather know the aircraft I am in can fly safely no matter what PED my fellow passengers may decide to use on the sly.

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