Electronics on Airplanes: Safe or Not?

On a recent airplane flight from Providence, Rhode Island, to Atlanta, Georgia, my wife and I, following the directions of the flight attendant at takeoff, turned off our cell phones and electronic devices. I recalled the recent incident on an American Airline flight that involved the actor Alec Baldwin. I do not know all of the facts, nor do I care, but Mr. Baldwin was removed from the flight for allegedly failing to turn off his Apple iPad while playing the online game Words with Friends. His removal from the plane delayed the flight, which I am sure delighted the passengers, especially those who had to catch connecting flights — no matter who was at fault.

However, I also found it surprising that while Mr. Baldwin was still getting attention on segments of Saturday Night Live, the Wednesday, December 14, 2011 edition of NBC Nightly News, anchored by Brian Williams, reported that American Airlines had received FAA approval for pilots to use Apple iPads in the cockpit. The report stated that pilots will be allowed to use the Apple iPads to replace some 45 pounds of flight manuals and charts that they are currently required to carry. The report also indicated that using the Apple iPad would allow these diverse manuals and charts to receive their much needed updates more efficiently than is currently possible, thus providing the plane’s passengers and crew an added measure of safety.

In researching the subject further, it appears that, according to the Seattle PI, not only the American Airlines pilots, but also Alaskan Airlines pilots will be testing the Apple iPad on their flights. My purpose in reporting these FAA approvals is not to regurgitate these events, but to look at these events and how they will affect the people who frequently fly on airlines. I’d also like to share my personal opinion on how it will affect the safety of all of us who rely on pilots to keep us safe in our travels.

So, while pilots may be allowed to test out electronic devices in the cockpit, it is very apparent that the FAA has chosen to err on the side of caution when it comes to passengers doing the same. That means, for now, it is still prohibiting the use of all electronic devices during take off or landing. Therefore, since it remains an FAA requirement, the pilots, first officers, and flight attendants are required to enforce the rule in the same manner that they must enforce the ban on smoking. This means that no one is exempt, and when this involves a celebrity or anyone else of newsworthy status, I don’t envy the members of the cabin crew and their position that requires them to act as airplane police.

http://www.lockergnome.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/electronics-on-airplanes.gifThis morning, I spoke with a good friend of mine who is a pilot for a major airline (I promised him anonymity so he could speak freely). He concurred with my conclusion that enforcing these rules was a “pain,” but he also stated that it is a rare occurrence when passengers do not comply and that airline personnel actually have to have someone removed from a flight. He also agreed that the crew has no option but to enforce the rules to the best of its abilities and its members are subject to disciplinary actions if they fail to comply. The airlines are fully aware that the company is subject to a fine if the crew fails to enforce any FAA rule or requirement.

Out of curiosity, I then asked him if the Apple iPads that would be in the cockpit could be used to play Angry Birds, Words with Friends, or to update Facebook pages, send email, and/or surf the Web? He stated that he had heard that the devices would be ‘locked down’ and only official manuals, charts, and so forth could be accessed. Though the airline he works for has not switched, as of yet, to the Apple iPads, he was looking forward to the day in which they could leave the flight bag at the airport and not have to lug what he called “a bag full of bricks” through the terminal.

In my opinion, the FAA needs to reevaluate all electronic devices to determine the exact ones that interfere with flight safety and those devices that could be used harmlessly during take-off and landing. By doing this, it could keep passengers from looking at the restrictions with a jaundiced eye and acknowledging the advantages for the pilot and first officer using Apple iPads in the cockpit. One could then conclude that if the use of an Apple iPad so near to the controls has been deemed safe, then using the device anywhere on the plane would be safe, as well.

Which brings me back to the airplane flight I took to Atlanta. As we were taxiing down the runway getting ready for take off, it was disturbing to see one passenger still checking his email on his cell phone. This passenger finally turned off the device just seconds before we actually took to the air, but I felt that his failure to comply with the flight attendant’s instructions was not only rude, but could have endangered the safety of all of those aboard.

If you disagree with my assessment, please feel free to seek alternative means of transportation and don’t fly with me or my family. Not using our electronic devices for 30 minutes or so is not going to kill any of us. Using your electronic device while taking off or landing could kill all of us. Be safe.

Comments welcome.

Article Written by

I have been writing for LockerGnome since relocating to Missouri seven years ago, where I continue to be a technology enthusiast who enjoys playing with the newest and latest gadgets.

  • Anonymous

    The main reason they want electronics off in the plane while it is about to take off and landing is so that people pay attention. They don’t want them distracted because if something goes wrong they want them to notice and be ready if something does happen.

    • Anonymous

      I agree. Most people don’t even pay attention to the safety instructions. Sad.

    • GSM

      Exactly. And if you are using earphones, they must be plugged into the aircraft’s system, not your own device, so that you will her the safety announcements (it’s the law that they must be audible to you, sadly, there is no law to make you listen!) And the major reason they want portable electronics stowed away and not in your hands during take-off and landing is because in the event of rapid acceleration and decelaration (aka crash) these devices become lethal missiles – think of an iPad slicing into your neck at, say, 100 mph.

  • http://twitter.com/cj_ware Cj Ware

    How long does it take to land and take off a plane are we really in that era that we cant do without gadgets for that short period of time that could potentially be life saving if something drastic went wrong sometime i wonder about people 

  • Guest

    “I felt that his failure to comply with the flight attendant’s instructions was not only rude, but could have endangered the safety of all of those aboard.” Seriously????

  • Tomas James

    Pilots don’t refer to charts during takeoff or landing. They use them before to familiarise themselves with patterns they may be put in or to clue up on ILS information. The iPad will be used in the same way. In other words the pilots will only be using iPads when the passengers can as well. Therefore nothing to worry about.

  • kevin sexton

    Cell phones are likely to be among the most dangerous of devices that could be used on the plane, because of the way they have variable power and send data in bursts. A non-rf device, like most handheld games, or even ipads and ereaders, if the radio is disabled, should have much lower rf interference potential. Even receive only devices like fm radios, scanners etc, can cause interference because of the way some of them convert the incoming signal to another frequency, which can leak out of the radio.

    The main problem for the FTC is that there are so many different devices, that all need to be tested in all possible conditions. If they decide the ipod and iphone are ok, what happens when someone uses a knockoff hiphone bought on ebay from china?

  • Dan

    I find it annoying when people don’t comply with the FAA regulations that these all of these airline crew members have to enforce.  One time, while the safety video was being shown, there were some people not paying attention, and therefore, they had to start the video all over again.  Also, there has been another time when someone wouldn’t get off their phone when a crew member told them so.  Whether you like it or not, you have to follow these rules!  It’s not the end of the world just because you won’t be able to use your electronics during take-off and landing (aproximately 1 hr combined)!  That’s why they have something called the in-flight radio!  I’ve used them while taking off and landing and the crew members were fine with it.

  • Duane Foote

    That’s right.

  • http://twitter.com/Mainframe Richard Green

    While it may be rude, I wouldn’t worry about the safety.  There is no way that stewards can be sure that all electronic equipment is turned off. How many people have simply forgotten that they left something on by mistake. This ‘safety issue’ is tested hundreds of times a day, intentionally and otherwise, apparently without incident. If it were a real hazard to the operating and communication systems of airplanes, the FAA would be able to produce compelling evidence by now.

    I do agree that people should refrain from distractions during take-off and landing. If something is going to go wrong (and it VERY rarely does) it is most likely to happen then.

    I also think that people should not take out their frustrations about FAA regulations on the flight crews. They have to follow regulations even when they don’t agree. We don’t need to make their jobs any harder.

  • Pete

    I’m a Captain at a major airline; prior to that, I was an electrical engineer.  Despite the flawed science of ‘mythbusters,’ hand-held electronics can interfere with aircraft electronics.  Newly designed jets such as the Airbus 380 or the Boeing 787 started their design phase more than 10 years ago, jets like the Boeing 737 although still newly manufactured were designed in the early 1960s before many of your readers were born. Do you think aerospace engineers were thinking of cellphone interference 50 years ago?  Tablets designed for cockpit use can be engineered for safe use, but there is no way to vet every device out there.  I’ve had two interference incidents in my career, both on very late flights where many people made cell calls after takeoff.  We had numerous instrument failures on multiple electric buses including both artificial horizons, each on a different power source (still had a third emergency attitude indicator which has its own internal battery)–this could have been very dicey in a cloud deck.  After making an announcement to check that phones should be turned off or we would make an immediate landing, passengers turned off their phones and all problems went away.  NASA has an aviation safety database of similar incidents.  The signal processing in your device may be transmitting without your knowledge, a device may cause problems in one seat location versus another, and it may take multiple devices in use before there is an interference problem.  There was an incident in Great Britain a few years ago where ground-based electrical interference in the airport area affected the engine electronics, causing engine rollback and a landing short of the runway.

    I appreciate the comments here to follow instructions from the flight crew.  Believe me, we want you to have a good travel experience and are not going out of our way to make your trip worse.  Mr. Baldwin got off easy.  Interfering with a crewmember is a felony; he could and should be in jail.  To mock the crewmembers who were doing a job that the FAA would fine them for not doing is insulting not only to them, but the traveling public whose safety he jeopardized.

    It takes about five minutes to climb to 10,000 feet, the altitude where you can use ‘approved’ devices.  As for your phone–appreciate the ‘me’ time on the flight when you won’t be interrupted, and indulge yourself with some other entertainment which will leave you more refreshed and in better spirits to handle whatever is facing you after you get to your destination.

    • http://profiles.google.com/sosolisalisa Lisa Lloyd

      THANK YOU PETE!!!!!! I APPRECIATE THE CORRECT INFORMATION FROM SOMEONE WHO ACTUALLY KNOWS!  I WISH MORE PEOPLE HAD CORRECT INFORMATION! MAYBE IF OUR MEDIA WASN’T SO FREAKIN PREOCCUPIED W/ CRAP THAT DOESN’T MATTER (BALDWINS – KARDASHIANS…) WE WOULD HAVE MORE PERTINENT INFO AVAILABLE!!!! THANK YOU AGAIN!

      lisa

    • Mssneto

      That the way to go. Rules exit for the safety of ALL. Minorities who drop those rules as if they are above them must be punished. Like Chris said we can survive 30 minutes without eletronics gadgets. So civilized people follow the rules for the best result possible for ALL around then!!

  • Sosolisalisa

    I AGREE! Come on people just follow the rules – jeez – people have a fit when we are all put in danger ( example – terrorists taking over planes – remember that?!?) then when rules are put in place we hear endless complaining! Make up your minds. I think its reasonable to have everyones attention for a short period of time even if it doesn’t technically “interfere” w/ the planes controls – but we don’t know for sure – so they should do specific tests! I feel the same w/ the whole x-ray machine @ airports – I’D RATHER TAKE A FEW PRECAUTIONS TO FLY SAFE (OR SAFER) THAN THE ALTERNATIVE!

  • Ston_crow

    Four decades ago when emerging personal technology was 4-banger calculators, USAF banned their use on B-52s because of leakage reportedly affecting the navigation and radar systems in the aircraft.  Eventually a list of vetted models appeared.  Since then electronics conduits were hardened and shielded to dissipate feared EMP from outside the aircraft but ancillary effect to insulate disparate systems within.  Civilian aircraft may or not have followed defense industry’s practice.  Far clearer to dictate “turn ALL of them off”  rather than nuance “this not worry, that may be a problem, those are no-no’s”

  • Sheridan

    If there actually is a percieved problem then electronic devices should be in the same category as liguids…. put em in your checked bag!

  • Kyle Polansky

    I agree with you to a point. This rule originated with cell phones, because at the time, cell phones interfered with the radio that the plane used to communicate with the ground. However, today, normal cell phones do not cause any interference with the plane controls.

    I would probably say it’s a good idea to not use electronic devices during the preflight speech as shown in Chris’s video you embedded. However, I have heard that message hundreds of times, and already find the emergency exit when I print my ticket with my seat on it.

    However, people that fly all the time would probably argue that it’s OK to use these devices. I know people that are on over 100 flights a year. So that 3 minutes on each flight would add up to 300 minutes a year, or 5 hours. It’s a lot of wasted time listening to the same exact directions over and over. Or, if you take everyone on the plane (using 250 for this example) you waste about 12.5 hours per flight, just explain instructions. This time could be put into more useful activities.

    Just think if you were forced to listen to 3 minutes of instructions every single time you wanted to drive some place in your car, or use a bus or subway? I don’t feel like doing the calculations, but it would be a long time. In my opinion, new passengers are the only people that really benefit. If airports would provide safety information at the gate for these passengers, the people that don’t care wouldn’t have to listen to it.

    Also on a side note, airlines should make in-flight wifi free. Also, for the people complaining about terrorists, riding in an airplane is still much safer than driving. This article sums that point up pretty well: http://www.nshima.com/2009/06/flying.html

  • Wil Fernandez

    Two words: 

    Airplane Mode.

  • Peter McDermott

    Who the hell is Brian Jennings?!

    • Anonymous

      I have contacted our editor to correct the name to Williams. My home editor changed the name for some unknown reason and I missed it when I reread the article. Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/cougar78 cougar78

    Not that I have any great knowledge on this but I agree 30 minutes shouldn’t be a big deal to put a device down/off for.  I think they use the blanket policy specifically so they don’t have to use the time and money to try to test all the devices out there.  Every month we get more and more wifi/bluetooth/mobile devices like e-readers, tablets, phones, computers, and etc..  So I would think it would be almost impossible for them to keep up unless they had some sort of direct partnership to be part of the testing when devices hit the FCC.  I don’t really see that happening anytime soon.

    Sadly it’s not just in a plane people need to learn to put their devices down for a little while.  People who can’t go a whole movie in a theater without checking their phones drive me crazy. I mention that because it goes back to people’s reliance on devices and they (me included) need to learn to be able to set it down for that 30 minutes on takeoff/landing.

  • Guest

    The regulation regarding portable electronic devices is covered
    by Title 14, Part 91.21. Essentially it says that electronic devices may not be
    used unless the operator of the aircraft has determined the specific device will
    not interfere with nav-com systems. The FAA doesn’t make the determination and
    isn’t the bad guy here. In the case of a private aircraft it’s the pilot that
    makes that determination, and in the case of a large commercial aircraft it’s
    the airline. If the airline has tested the iPad and determined that it doesn’t interfere,
    then the airline could allow its use by passengers as well as crew, probably
    simply by notifying the FAA and explaining the test procedure that gives it
    confidence. My guess is that the airline has conducted tests to assure a small
    number of these specific devices won’t cause interference, but the airlines
    probably can’t vouch for 100+ such devices of different vintage. They could
    probably insulate their cockpits and prequalify specific devices, but that
    costs money and time. Thus, the airlines take the easy way out and just say no,
    then blame the FAA.

    http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=b90f41fa793a0b620929b5fa60d36e22&rgn=div8&view=text&node=14:2.0.1.3.10.1.4.11&idno=14