FAA should re-work the rules regarding electronics on airplanes.

Senator Claire McCaskill is taking part in a campaign to have the FAA re-write its rules on electronic devices.

A growing number of critics argue the rule has no scientific basis. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski sent a letter to FAA Chairman Michael Huerta urging him to revise the rules. On Tuesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) sent a letter of her own to the nation’s top aviation regulator.

“The current rules are inconvenient to travelers, don’t make sense, and lack a scientific basis,” McCaskill argued, according to The Hill. “Airline employees have the incredibly important job of keeping us safe in the air—their efforts are better spent worrying about rules that actually accomplish that goal.”

I fly a lot, and would love to be able to play games on my tablet as I take off and land, or work on that next blog post, or whatever.

Anybody who has even remotely thought about this issue knows that cell phones and tablets don’t affect the instruments of airplanes.  Why on earth would you even let us bring them onto the plane if that were the case?  Seems terrorists could all book flights on the same plane and just leave all their electronics on.  This is the same TSA who recently worried that my abandoned tablet could have been a bomb in disguise.  Do you really think they’d let us cart these devices onto a plane if they could cause an accident?

What’s more, even pilots have spoken out about this.

Why do I think there is no “real” danger that Blackberries, Kindles and nooks, iPhones and iPads, Bose/Sony headsets, handheld GPS devices, or any other “equipment with an off/on switches” will interfere with navigation equipment, safe approaches and landing, and overall welfare? Because:

- 100% of the pilots making those landings and approaches have GPS receivers right there next to them in the cockpits, of the kind you would have to turn off if you had one in your lap in seat 38F;

- Every one of the airline pilots I’ve ever asked has kept his or her cell phone turned on in the cockpit, again right next to the “sensitive” equipment. I always had a cell phone with me, turned on, during flights in small planes, and several times I’ve used it in flight. (Once, to contact a control tower when my radio had failed; another time, to get an IFR clearance when there were radio problems.)

- Many of those pilots, depending on the type of airplane, are wearing noise-cancelling headsets through the whole flight, of the sort you are made to turn off as a passenger. All small-plane pilots are wearing those headsets through the whole flight.

- More and more pilots have iPads turned on through the entire flight, including United pilots who are being switched en masse from paper to iPad navigational charts. I now use an iPad extensively when flying, because the program I use, Foreflight, is so much more adaptable and informative than the paper charts it replaced. It would make things riskier, rather than safer, if I had to turn it off at arbitrary times.

- And, on all “non-airline big-aircraft” flights, like political charters or corporate jets, people leave their “devices” on the whole time, and it never causes a problem.

However, I know that most airplane crashes occur right after takeoff and during the final approach, and that casualties increase when there are a bunch of loose items rattling about the fuselage.  In preparing for an emergency landing, flight attendants collect watches, rings, even shoes, to keep them from flying around.  So perhaps, I thought, even if electronics don’t mess with the plane’s systems, maybe it’s good to have people keep them stowed until the plane hits 10,000 feet and on the final descent just in case.

Well, no.  As it turns out, crashes among the major airlines are very rare.  So rare that such a policy would hardly make any sense.

Despite the large number of people who feel some apprehension before boarding a plane, the odds of being involved in an airplane accident are incredibly small. Across all commercial airlines, accidents occur at a rate of one per 1.2 million flights, and the odds that the average American will die in a plane crash is just 1 in 11 million [sources: Clarke, Ropeik]. With the odds of dying in a car accident hovering around 1 in 5,000, it’s essentially true that you’re much more likely to die on your way to the airport than you are once you actually make it into the air [source: Ropeik].

And nobody gripes about motor vehicle passengers having their cell phones out.  So ultimately, I’m with McCaskill.  The laws should be redone.

Incidentally, on my flight back to Arkansas on Monday, I was boarding the plane from Columbus to Atlanta and noticed that the top stabilizer on the tail fin was unbalanced.  The half of the stabilizer on the left side was higher than the half on the right.  Immediately there was conflict.  Surely this is something the flight crew would have noticed, and probably doesn’t want to be bothered with.

However, I recalled Aloha Airlines Flight 243, where a passenger noticed an irregularity in the paneling before takeoff and thought about saying something, but didn’t.  It turns out that it led to a major problem where, through tremendous luck, not everybody on the plane died (there was one casualty).

So I did tell a flight attendant, who asked me to go up and tell the captain.  I did so, and he explained that on this particular model of plane that the two sections are not connected.  It was nothing, but I’m glad I spoke up.

  • RuQu

    Always speak up if you see something out of place.

    I drive a ship, and there are many similarities and I have multiple commercial pilots in my family. Complacency is a major contributor to accidents, and it is easy for someone who has performed a visual check hundreds of times with nothing out of place to start being less vigilant than they should be and miss something small but important. Someone speaking up can make a huge difference. It might annoy the crew if it is minor, but it might also save their lives.

  • Jasper

    One could argue that the combination of all kinds of devices could interfere – like having 50 people talking to each other, while you’re trying to have a phone call, instead of one.

    It would surprise me if, in all this time, no one bothered to do any kind of study on this.

  • Anonymous

    Hello, first time poster, 2 years lurker. I worked as an aircraft systems engineer in France. (I am french and taking this opportunity to shake some rust from my english).
    To be honest, you do not have a clue on this subject. And neither do the pilots (they know how to fly, not how to prove that an aircraft is safe). What you are asking for is just taking everything that made aircrafts safe and throwing it overboard. Let me very quickly summarise how to get a plane cerified.
    You have to prove that your plane complies with the correct FAA regulation. For a big commercial aircraft, it’s FAA regulations part 25, and it’s available on the FAA website if you want to have some unfun. About radio frequencies interferencies, it says this (I know it quite well, it has been a central piece of some of my nightmares):

    25.1309
    (a) The equipment, systems, and installations whose functioning is required by this subchapter, must be designed to ensure that they perform their intended functions under any foreseeable operating condition.
    (b) The airplane systems and associated components, considered separately and in relation to other systems, must be designed so that [lots of stuff about not killing people]
    [...]
    (e) In showing compliance with paragraphs (a) and (b) of this section with regard to the electrical system and equipment design and installation, critical environmental conditions must be considered. [and other stuff]

    How do you prove that? By asking a certification official about the accepted means of compliance. In this case she will tell you to go check the DO-160 (current version is G, wikipedia has some words on it). This is a big, heavy document named “Environmental Conditions and Test Procedures for Airborne Equipment”. In it will be descirbed how to test equipment and demonstrate that they are safe, for example temperature testing, moisture resistance, or fungus resistance. Among them are three sections about susceptibility to radio frequencies. It will tell you how to conduct the tests (how to expose the tested equipment to which frequencies and a given level, depending on the role and postion of the equipment in the aircraft). These tests need some very expensive labs and specialized people.
    The DO-160 is written by the RTCA which is a non-profit association regrouping technical specialists from universities, governement agencies and aircraft makers. They update the DO-160 and other documents regularly.
    To allow your video games the RTCA must:
    - determine the level and frequencies of emissions from your video game thingy
    - make sure that it is the maximum level that can be emitted by thingies that look like it.
    - determine a way to reproduce it in a laboratory
    - make sure that this testing is doable in current labs (nt exactly the same as above)
    - determine a procedure for exposing the equipment to these emission
    - determine a performance level for each category of equipment
    - prove that this testing is sufficient
    (BTW, work is ongoing on DO-160H, and RFI is one of the subject)

    Wait a few years. Before that, be happy to have fly in safe aircrafts. Actually, the FAA has very little to do with it.
    And no, you can’t say “but my particular model/brand of thingy does not emit in this particular frequency band!” because then you are asking the flight attendant to know every brand/model of video game, to determine that it has not been tampered with, to take the responsability for clearing it, and then to go throught the same procedure for every passenger that asks the same question, and finally to explain to angry passengers why their thingy is not okay and why yours is.
    There are several big differences between your stuff and the pilots’:
    - the pilots are in the cockpit. This makes a huge difference to the exposed equipments. There is a reason why some of them are in the aircraft’s tail! The cockpit’s equipment is often a lot less sensitive to these interferences than other equipment. That’s a condition of it being in the cockpit.
    - the pilots’ stuff has not been tampered with
    - the pilot’s stuff is not turned on or off during the take-off or landing:there are little chnace of interferencies suddenly appearing or disappearing during a critical flight phase.

    • Jasper

      To reiterate one of JT’s points, doesn’t that constitute a massive security vulnerability? There’s no guarantee that people are going to turn off their devices (they can hide that fact), and the TSA doesn’t check devices that thoroughly either.

      So someone goes onboard with a modified device with high-power output, turns it on, and messes up the plane.

      • Ronan

        There are a few subtilities.
        The idea of aircraft safety is not to ensure that there will never be any crash. The idea is to make aircraft flight at least as safe as life. A human being has roughly one chance in a hundred thousand of dying per hour. After some calculation and margins, an aircraft should not have a risk of crashing and killing everybody during normal operation higher than one in one billion per hour.
        Is the risk of somebody using an IEM weapon translating into a risk of crash too high? If the answer is no, then screw that. I worked with on a FAA part 23 aircraft (small aircrafts), and it is explicitly written that intentional damages are not taken into account. I think that some bombing scenarios are part of the certification for bigger aircrafts.
        Another example: all the commercial aircrafts have a very high probability of killing everybody on board if the wings detach during flight. That’s why there are design standards and special manufacturing procedures put in place to get the probability of that happening very low. But it is not zero.
        You can always dream some messed-up scenarios in which everybody dies. And with the number of aircrafts flying, some of them happen. That’s why NTSB reports are often morbid but interresting.

        • Ronan

          Arf, I did two mistakes: i double posted and mad a mess of a cut-and-paste:
          “Before that, be happy to have fly in safe aircrafts. Actually, the FAA has very little to do with it.”
          It is totally wrong. The FAA contributes a lot to the safety of commercial flights; i wanted to say that it is not the only organisation invovled in banning phones on aircrafts.

      • John Horstman

        Well, that’s not really likely. RF interference – unless it’s at a level that generates a functional EMP – really only interferes with navigation and communication. It’s not going to make a plane fall out of the sky, but sufficient interference could create dangerous situations if a plane doesn’t have a landing corridor because it can’t contact the tower, or if it gets lost (Lost™?) over the middle of the Pacific ocean because navigational interference. That said, the take-off/landing prohibition doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, since you get to use stuff in flight, so clearly they’re not REALLY worried about navigational interference (perhaps radio, but, again, unless specifically modified to interfere, consumer electronics aren’t going to do so, and anyone specifically modifying something to interfere isn’t going to let a regulation stop hir).

    • theflyingatheist

      The number one problem other than the certification one (and the projectile one) is that people are distracted by these devices and may not hear evacuation orders by the crew in the event of an overrun or aborted takeoff which they are not prepared for. These things are not common but also sadly not rare.

    • unbound

      Actually, I’m not sure Anonymous really knows what he/she is talking about. As an electrical engineer myself (full disclosure, I don’t actively use that degree anymore…moved on to management and more computer based activities), the whole concept that emissions from mobile devices having a notable impact on hard-wired aircraft systems was laughable from the first time the concern was brought up.

      Ever wonder why your internet access at home via wire (not wireless) is rock solid? Your problems are always due to downstream problems in the electronics (the router itself or equipment at your ISP or the ISP upstream provider or possibly something pretty high powered sitting *right next* to the equipment itself), not due to the massive multitude of equipment in your house transmitting something down the LAN wire. The same is true in aircraft electronics (which are far more hardened)…the concept of a mobile device transmitting with such power as to interfere with the signals in a wire is nothing short of a joke.

      Similar to worries about radiation from a cell phone damaging cells in your body (which is not possible since the radiation levels from a cell phone is far too low to do anything remotely resembling cellular damage), a mobile device just isn’t capable of affecting the signal in wire and certainly isn’t going to reach the actual equipment in the cockpit.

  • Ronan

    Hello, first time poster, 2 years lurker. I worked as an aircraft systems engineer in France. (I am french and taking this opportunity to shake some rust from my english).
    To be honest, you do not have a clue on this subject. And neither do the pilots (they know how to fly, not how to prove that an aircraft is safe). What you are asking for is just taking everything that made aircrafts safe and throwing it overboard. Let me very quickly summarise how to get a plane cerified.
    You have to prove that your plane complies with the correct FAA regulation. For a big commercial aircraft, it’s FAA regulations part 25, and it’s available on the FAA website if you want to have some unfun. About radio frequencies interferencies, it says this (I know it quite well, it has been a central piece of some of my nightmares):

    25.1309
    (a) The equipment, systems, and installations whose functioning is required by this subchapter, must be designed to ensure that they perform their intended functions under any foreseeable operating condition.
    (b) The airplane systems and associated components, considered separately and in relation to other systems, must be designed so that [lots of stuff about not killing people]
    [...]
    (e) In showing compliance with paragraphs (a) and (b) of this section with regard to the electrical system and equipment design and installation, critical environmental conditions must be considered. [and other stuff]

    How do you prove that? By asking a certification official about the accepted means of compliance. In this case she will tell you to go check the DO-160 (current version is G, wikipedia has some words on it). This is a big, heavy document named “Environmental Conditions and Test Procedures for Airborne Equipment”. In it will be descirbed how to test equipment and demonstrate that they are safe, for example temperature testing, moisture resistance, or fungus resistance. Among them are three sections about susceptibility to radio frequencies. It will tell you how to conduct the tests (how to expose the tested equipment to which frequencies and a given level, depending on the role and postion of the equipment in the aircraft). These tests need some very expensive labs and specialized people.
    The DO-160 is written by the RTCA which is a non-profit association regrouping technical specialists from universities, governement agencies and aircraft makers. They update the DO-160 and other documents regularly.
    To allow your video games the RTCA must:
    - determine the level and frequencies of emissions from your video game thingy
    - make sure that it is the maximum level that can be emitted by thingies that look like it.
    - determine a way to reproduce it in a laboratory
    - make sure that this testing is doable in current labs (nt exactly the same as above)
    - determine a procedure for exposing the equipment to these emission
    - determine a performance level for each category of equipment
    - prove that this testing is sufficient
    (BTW, work is ongoing on DO-160H, and RFI is one of the subject)

    Wait a few years. Before that, be happy to have fly in safe aircrafts. Actually, the FAA has very little to do with it.
    And no, you can’t say “but my particular model/brand of thingy does not emit in this particular frequency band!” because then you are asking the flight attendant to know every brand/model of video game, to determine that it has not been tampered with, to take the responsability for clearing it, and then to go throught the same procedure for every passenger that asks the same question, and finally to explain to angry passengers why their thingy is not okay and why yours is.
    There are several big differences between your stuff and the pilots’:
    - the pilots are in the cockpit. This makes a huge difference to the exposed equipments. There is a reason why some of them are in the aircraft’s tail! The cockpit’s equipment is often a lot less sensitive to these interferences than other equipment. That’s a condition of it being in the cockpit.
    - the pilots’ stuff has not been tampered with
    - the pilot’s stuff is not turned on or off during the take-off or landing:there are little chnace of interferencies suddenly appearing or disappearing during a critical flight phase.

    • Azkyroth

      No, we’re asking people who should have learned some upper-division physics to apply it.

      • RuQu

        ” the RTCA which is a non-profit association regrouping technical specialists from universities, governement agencies and aircraft makers. ”

        Yeah, I’m sure NONE of those people ever thought “hey, maybe we should apply all of this learning and hundreds of careers worth of expertise.”

        They are all sitting around today saying, “I wish some random angry internet poster had spoken up sooner! How else would all of us engineers and scientists have ever thought to apply science to this problem?!”

  • iknklast

    Just to play devil’s advocate a little (except that implies I don’t agree with what I’m about to say, and I do). Flying is an unpleasant enough situation, with the cramped quarters, the person next to me sprawling into my seat and forcing me into 3 inches of space, the uncomfortable seats and difficulty of squeezing past people to get to toilets…the last thing we need is to have everyone around us yakking on phones. I for one am glad there is one public place where I don’t have to listen to everyone else’s personal life blaring around me. I’ve managed to get by without a phone in the air all these years, and it doesn’t seem to difficult to me to cover the problem – I take a book. A good, old fashioned paper book that doesn’t need batteries, that doesn’t connect to the Internet, that doesn’t use any sort of electronic signal, and it works every time. I don’t have to wait for it to turn on, either. And the best part? It can be very educational! I can connect with long dead scientists, deranged novelists, thoughtful philosophers, strange and intriguing physicists, or anyone else I wish. And I can do all of this without intruding on anyone else’s private space.

    • RuQu

      To play the devil’s advocate to your position (angel’s advocate now?), a Kindle or e-book app on a phone is like carrying a library in your pocket with all of the positive benefits you mention above.

      The one big problem is, as Ronan said, you can’t expect flight attendants to know every electronic device and which are or are not approved, which are approved if they are set in “airplane mode,” etc.

      The regulations certainly deserve another look, but we can’t ignore the human factors in the process.

      • iknklast

        RuQu, I do carry an e-book, because that way I don’t have to carry so many books when I travel. But if the restrictions are removed on electronic devices, few people will be using e-books. They’ll be using cell phones. I hear cell phones in restaurants, movie theaters, plays (no matter that these places you are told to turn them off), shopping centers, the grocery store, the museum, the classroom (at least there I can give my students a very hard stare, and they turn them off), and even in the goddamn bathroom! What this world needs is not more electronic noise; it needs a little silence and thoughtful contemplation. Or even bored staring out the window so others can sleep or engage in thoughtful conversation or contemplation.

        When you are in a plane, you are stuck. You can’t get up and go somewhere else, hoping to escape other people’s totally private conversations being carried on in public. Jumping out is not an option. I say we consider other people for a change, rather than cell phone users, and let those of us who hate the damn noisy things have the ONE spot where we have no option to move away from them (unless we choose to lock ourselves in the house forever, we are doomed to hear other people’s crap.)

  • Gwynnyd

    @ Ronan So… er… why does using a device terribly interfere with the plane when I am inside it and not when I am using it to retrieve cellular data in the terminal building 20 feet away or when I have been given permission to turn my electronics on and a different plane taxis by me or takes off or lands? My cellular data antenna surely pulls in from a cell tower a lot farther away than that plane taking off and the cell towers *themselves* are compliant with FAA standards so as not to interfere. If devices were going to interfere, wouldn’t they have to banned from the vicinity of the airport and during the flight entirely? *Some* plane is nearly always in that vulnerable period of taxing to or from the terminal, taking off or landing. Why doesn’t my making a cellphone call or playing with a device inside the terminal matter to that plane nearby? What is so magical about the moment when these devices can be used or not? This isn’t a snarky question. It makes no sense to me.

    And Foreflight – yeah. *Awesome *program.

    • Ronan

      If it has not been proved safe, you do not get to do it on an aircraft. Whether it is dangerous or not is not really taken into account. It is the possible consequences that count, if your phone was to be actually dangerous.
      Moreover using a radio device inside or outside of an aircraft makes a huge difference. When you are seated in an aircraft you are at less than two meters away from electrical wiring that are connected to many equipments. They can act like huge antennas and conduct interferencies to the equipment. Moreover the aircraft fuselage can act as a resonance chamber and amplify some frequencies; but from the outside it act as a shield.
      The exact reason of why a phone is not safe aboard an aircraft is not my specialty; ask the specialists of RTCA for that. What I know how to do is a part of how to prove that an aircraft equipment is safe.

      • Epinephrine

        That’s absurd. Nothing can be proven to be safe. Basic inferential statistics.

        • Ronan

          I should have written “proven with a reasonable confidence that it is safe enough”. The way to do it indeed uses quite a lot of statistics.

      • Gwynnyd

        “When you are seated in an aircraft you are at less than two meters away from electrical wiring that are connected to many equipments. They can act like huge antennas and conduct interferencies to the equipment.”

        Seriously? No airplane designer *ever* bothered to wonder how to shield the wires? Not even from each other?

        If that’s true, then there’s a design flaw that needs to be fixed. If that’s not true, then it’s all scare mongering to no purpose. In either case, the solution is not to ban the use of electronic devices, but to the FIX the bloody problem.

        • Ronan

          The wiring is shielded for a range of known frequencies and level and other conditions. The problem is not really that consumer electronics are unsafe, it is that there is no agreed upon way to prove that they are safe enough.
          I have seen some weird things with conducted interferencies; like hearing in the radio a sound produced by LED navigation lights. The interferencies were coming from the chopper regulating the diodes’ current. A change to the wiring shielding and the way the diodes were connected to the electrical ground plane solved that.
          Some other very sensitive equipments are the magnetometers that give the compass bearing.

  • UsingReason

    Actually it is the FCC that has called for the ban on cellphone usage on planes in flight, not the FAA. This is because from 10,000 feet your call will bounce off of several cell towers instead of just one and potentially cause network congestion especially as you move quickly over an area and need to switch quickly from tower to tower (channel reuse). But the FCC is currently telling the FAA that cellphone usage can now be allowed; there is extensive use of cellphones on aircraft in Europe already.

    • Gwynnyd

      I fly quite a bit in a private small airplane. It’s very difficult to get cell reception over about 3500 feet, even if you can look down and see the cell towers you are flying over. It is why we use a third-party satellite-GPS dongle with the iPad when using it for flight navigation. Relying on cellular data for that would leave me scrambling the paper map out.

  • Meg

    I’ve been flying a lot for work this year and the last couple of times I’ve notice that the attendants have not been insisting on electronics being turned off.

    I’ve had earbuds in my ears and my ipod going all the way through landing because no one had told me to turn it off. I know my hair might cover the buds, but the cord is hard to miss.

    • Jasper

      As it turns out, you did cause the plane to crash, and you’ve spent this entire time in purgatory. Now you just have to resist the urge to unplug the rock from the river.

  • anatman

    george takei is on the same wavelength. a recent post on his blog discusses the question and links to his petition to change the rules.
    stop making me turn my kindle off
    petition

  • Little Magpie

    My issue is that it’s “anything that has an on-off switch” – which includes any number of things that aren’t broadcasting anything on any wavelength. (ie, old, old-school iPod, which, you know, it connects to the rest of the world *by being plugged into a computer that’s online.*) I admit I’m not an engineer, so I don’t know the specs of the ancient iPod or the plane, but this seems like common sense.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    Maybe instead of turning everything off, they just stress the Airplane Mode of their communication. Turn off all devices for which you cannot turn off the WiFi or Bluetooth or G or whatever, and otherwise, turn off the communication signal for those you can.

  • Kiv

    For what it’s worth, I’m a pilot, and on my particular airplane, there is a particular “cell phone interference” noise we can hear over the headsets in the cockpit. It makes a sort of humming noise with some quiet click/pulsing. It seems to be worse the closer the offending phone is to the cockpit – the loudest I’ve heard is still not enough to drown out the conversation between crewmembers fortunately, and usually turns out to be one of the pilots’ phones left on by accident. It’s also turned out to be the flight attendant’s phone in the closet behind the cockpit or in the galley, or a passenger in the front few rows.
    Interestingly enough, it does seem to happen with AT&T and T-mobile phones, maybe there’s something different about those providers technically speaking, or it might just be coincidence. I’ve also never noticed any interference from any other type of electronics. Also, I have only flown one type of airplane for my entire airline career, so I can’t make a comparison across different makes/models of aircraft.

    • RuQu

      Doing aerial surveys in a King Air, the pilots have said similar to me. I asked them “What’s the deal with cell phones?” They said “it’s not generally a big deal, but we can hear it in our headphones which can be distracting if you are having trouble making out the radio chatter.”

      • Ronan

        The king air is a cool aircraft, with some funny design quirks. For example the main electrical feeder coming from the starter-generators is not one big wire but a bundle of small ones to allow them to make a tight enough turn inside the engine pods (this might depend on the aircraft; the one I saw had been quite modified).
        During tests on the ground I heard in the radio some navigation lights (a chirp when they were flashing), I heard the stand-by alternator (on a single engined plane with one main starter-generator and a spare alternator, a high pitched whine depending on the engine’s speed)), and a lightning strike a few kilometers away.

  • Ronan

    I found this:
    http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=13835
    “Press Release – FAA Announces Plans for Industry Working Group to Study Portable Electronics Usage”
    They are asking for comments.
    With more details here:
    http://www.faa.gov/news/updates/media/PED_RFC_8-27-2012.pdf
    The comments are supposed to be available somewhere on the FAA website, but it is two in the morning here and I can’t muster the will to search.

  • BarkingMad

    I have one other factor I would like everyone to take into consideration in this discussion. A lot of the commentators have stated that there is no proof that personal electronic devices, or PED’s in the industry vernacular, cause interference with aircraft systems. This is both true and misleading. True because no one has tested every electronic device that a passenger might bring aboard an aircraft and wish to use. In fact very few have been tested at all. What we can say is that critical aircraft systems are test for their ability to tolerate interference at specific frequencies.
    But it is misleading to say that this lack of proof is evidence that it is reasonably safe to use PED’s on board an aircraft. The problem is that PED’s are consumer grade equipment. All such devices sold in the US must comply with FCC part 15. This in theory prevents the device from generating interference. But not every device that a manufacturer builds is tested to guarantee that this is true. Most of us have experienced buying a new piece of technology and had to return it because it did not work as intended. Even if a device works exactly as intended when it was made it might not continue to do so throughout their life span. The danger is a device that malfunction in a way could interfere with critical aircraft systems. Just because a device “does not send and receive signals” does not mean that it can’t cause interference. Every device with a microprocessor has a clock. A pacemaker, if you will, that allows the process keep track of when to do things. That clock is designed operate at a specific frequency. Normally the signal that this clock generates stays safely within the device. But if the device is defective or damaged, that signal can leak out as radio frequency interference. Sometimes that frequency can coincide with those used to keep aircraft from bumping into one another.
    It is true that aircraft accidents are very very rare. We strive for the probability of a catastrophic event being less than 1 EE -09 per flight hour. That’s really really safe. But as air traffic gets denser and we try to overcome the challenges of keeping the plans flying in all weather, we must rely much more on technology to keep planes on course and separated from one another. Disruption of this technology is not just an inconvenience for the pilots, it is a real safety risk.

  • John-Henry Beck

    I would hope that, at the very least, if they need to ban or restrict certain devices or certain uses that they at least clearly spell out the why for it. To me that seems to be a big part of the credibility hit that they’re taking – since we don’t know why things are banned it just appears to be silly and unnecessary, thereby killing respect for the rules.

  • Melissa W.

    If there is interference, why don’t they just ban the use of such devices during the flight? I had two different experiences with an e-reader, one of which is a tablet like device and one of which isn’t and both can connect to a wifi signal. In the first instance with the device that has e-ink, I wasn’t told to turn off my device. In the second instance I was told to turn it off (I didn’t, just turned the screen off), even though it was in airplane mode and therefore not being used. So if you want people not to use these types of devices that have wifi capabilities, then ban them from coming on the plane in the first place.


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