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.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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