Let Your Gadgets Fly!


November 5, 2013

THE BIG NEWS IN AIR TRAVEL is last week’s long-awaited — some would say long overdue — announcement from the FAA that it is easing the restrictions on the use of some electronic devices in flight.

There’s been some confusion: the new rules pertain only to devices of tablet size and smaller — like iPads, Kindles, MP3 players and small gaming devices.  Laptop computers must remain stowed during taxi, takeoff and landing, and the use of cellular phones remains prohibited.  Onboard Wi-Fi will continue to be available only above 10,000 feet, and all devices with cellular capability must be in “airplane mode” during flight.  

All along there have been different rules for different devices for different reasons, and only a few of the rules are changing.  The reason laptop use remains restricted is not just because of concerns over electronic interference. Your computer has to be stowed for the same reason your luggage has to be stowed: to keep it from becoming a dangerous projectile during an impact or sudden deceleration, and, more importantly, so that it does not impede an emergency evacuation.  Time is critical during an evacuation, and the idea is to keep people from toppling over computers and tray tables as they rush for the exits.  

It will be be up to individual airlines to ensure their aircraft are adequately gadget-proof.  Carriers will be required to perform tests, and must submit plans as to how the new rules will be interpreted and enforced — all subject to FAA approval.  The carrier-by-carrier process means there might be small differences as to which gadgets are approved for which periods of flight.  

The regulatory process seems to be working as it should, if perhaps a little too slowly: Initially there was a blanket ban on all electronic gadgets. This made sense at a time when not everything about these devices, and how their use might affect onboard equipment, was understood.  Now regulators are beginning to look at specific devices, tailoring the rules as needed.  

To me the latest changes are sensible and reasonable, though not everybody is sanguine.  Christine Negroni, aviation journalist and author of “Deadly Departure,” worries that the easing of restrictions might be a slippery slope toward reckless policy, and that the FAA is ignoring the safety concerns presented by members of a panel who studied the issue.

“The advisory committee issued a substantial list of examples of how gadgets can interfere with flight controls and systems,” Negroni says. “They didn’t make them up and they didn’t rely on their personal experiences. They used scientific testing.”
“Its a glass is half full approach. There is a great desire by the flying public to use these devices, and the FAA has ignored facts that suggest electronic devices pose a threat to concentrate on those that suggest everything will be okay.  Don’t get me wrong. I understand that people are already not complying, which is itself a good way to degrade safety. But the remedy proposed doesn’t solve that either. It takes us further into the same territory. Who will put their device into airplane mode? How will the flight attendant check this? How responsive will passengers be to the pilots’ instruction to stop using devices in low visibility approaches, for example?” 

Looming behind all of this, meanwhile, is the issue of mobile phones.  Are the latest changes just another step toward the lifting of all restrictions, including those pertaining to phones, or will the phones ban be permanent?

This is trickier.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that phones can, every so often, interfere with a plane’s electronics, and there have been at least two accidents — one in Switzerland and one in New Zealand — in which phones may have played a role.  Granted those accidents were several years ago, and the aircraft were smaller, older models, but there’s a lot about this we just don’t know.  Many people are led to believe the phones prohibition is totally unnecessary — just another example of those mean old airlines making life miserable for their customers.  But it’s not that simple.  Have I, as an airline pilot, ever experienced what I thought to be interference from a phone?  No, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and erring on the side of caution here is probably prudent.

As it stands, you couldn’t use your phone during flight if you wanted to. The cellular networks aren’t reachable once you’re above a few thousand feet, and even at low altitudes calls would seldom stay connected for very long.  Technology already exists that that could eliminate these glitches, and at some point the safety challenges too are likely to be surmounted.  But is that really the way to go?

Ultimately, I suspect this will come down to being a social issue rather than a technological one.  In other words, even if on-board calling were technologically reliable and a hundred percent safe, does that make it a good idea?  Do you really want to be crammed into an airplane with two-hundred people all chatting away on their phones at the same time?

Air travel is already such a noisy experience.  U.S. airports are intolerably loud. There are people shouting, kids screeching and carts beeping; public address announcement play constantly, sometimes two and three at a time, while TV news monitors blare mindlessly at every gate.  It’s not until stepping onto the airplane that travelers find some peace and quiet.  I say we keep it that way.  Perhaps, eventually, we could tweak the rules to allow some forms of inflight calling.  Have a designated area in the back of the plane, for example, where passengers could, one or two at a time, place a call if needed.  Or maybe a “chattering” section, akin to the old smoking section, where callers could sequester themselves and drive one another crazy.  

No rush.  Count me among those who hope the ban stays in place.


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33 Responses to “Let Your Gadgets Fly!”
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  1. Hilton says:

    I’m seventy. Lucky me. When I first flew, the airline gave me a “flight bag” which was the only thing I could carry on board with personal items I might require that was unavailable from the cabin staff, such as a diabetic kit.
    I still fly often and watch a family of three bring aboard two suitcases each, leaving me crouched over my modest bag under my feet while the seat in front of me reclines, reducing me to a state of immobility for the duration. One day soon I expect to see someone with a cage of chickens
    But back to PED’s. Although I was a private pilot for many years I have never lost the thrill of flight, I love it. The sky. The cloud formations. The views. But lately I have noticed that people book the window seats so that they can close the blinds all the better to play on their iPads, accentuating the feeling of being trapped in an aluminium tube full of body odours. Please don’t increase the misery that is modern flight by allowing three hundred people shouting (they don’t understand that phones can carry a whisper) that they are in the sky somewhere and will probably arrive at the time their facebook said they would. I would love to hear this announcement…
    “My apologies. This plane has to return to the terminal so that the person using their cell phone can be removed by the police to a safe place where their urgent business can be conducted in three months privacy”

    • JamesP says:

      “One day soon I expect to see someone with a cage of chickens…”

      OMG I’m still laughing as I type this… thanks for LOL!

  2. R Laurence Davis says:

    Thank goodness that Amtrak has a “Quiet Car” otherwise traveling would be intolerable. Right now I fly about 60.000 miles a year. If cell phones become “legal” I’ll do everything that I can to avoid flying. Perhaps we’ll have to go back to the old smoking and non-smoking seats and have them for cell and no cell (with no cell at the front!).

  3. flymike says:

    I’m with Steve and Patrick and Rod, but what do I know? I’m only an airline pilot with 30 years in the left seat . . .

  4. Roger Wolff says:

    The “no cell phones” policy can probably be enforced by using the “microcell” strategy. Just take a small “GSM” cell along the in the plane. Tell every phone it can connect, leave out the “satelite phone” hardware that “Emirates” has (as stated above), and you have a reasonably cheap way to detect phones: As long as any phone is connected to the micro-cell inside the plane, you can tell people: Someone still has his phone on, please turn it off…. (for better effect: the microcell might be able to show the phone number: “Will the person with phone number +3212345678 please turn off his phone?”, Or call them on the local GSM network. 🙂 )

    The problem with GSM phones and airplanes is that the phones can transmit bursts of considerable power. This happens when the tower reports back: can’t hear you very well, please send with more power (or when there is no reply)…..

    Having a microcell inside the plane means that you can tell all the phones to transmit at very low power levels…..

  5. JuliaZ says:

    I flew Alaska flight 2 yesterday from SEA to DCA. We took off late because they needed to replace the brake pads (!! yes please !!) and I was surprised to notice when I switched my phone to Airplane mode with wireless on that GogoInflight was working already. It worked throughout the ENTIRE flight, even on the ground at both ends. So maybe the 10,000′ thing is being quietly flaunted by the airline staff, or someone plain forgot to do it.

    As the FA went through the safety briefing, she got to the part about stowing electronic devices and she laughed and said, “yep, don’t have to say that anymore, just make sure you’re in Airplane mode please”.

    ~15 minutes before landing in DC, the pilot came on the PA to announce that he expected a rough landing because of gusty winds, and he knew we were all so excited to have our tablets the whole flight, but it would be great if we would put them away so that nobody would get hurt if we hit a particularly rough patch and somebody dropped one. Pretty much everyone complied, and it was indeed a pretty bouncy landing. Brakes worked great, though. 🙂

  6. Roger says:

    Anyone else suspect that one consequence of allowing cell phone usage on airplanes is that the bathrooms will be full of people wanting a bit of privacy for their calls?

  7. Eric Beyer says:

    What I’m still not clear on is a cell phone, with cell service turned off, or an iPod touch or iPad can connect to a plane’s wifi (where available) and use a VoIP service like skype or google hangouts, enabling perfectly legal cellphone-esque yapping. The hell Mr. Smith envisions may be well nigh upon us already.

    • JuliaZ says:

      GogoInflight claims to not allow VOIP, but I have no idea how they could tell and what they would do to deny it. T-mobile certainly directly supports it, and wi-fi is wi-fi, right? Could they actually be relying on basic human decency here? It will all go to hell soon enough if that’s the case. LOL

      • Jennifer says:

        Without getting too much into the technical details, VOIP data packets are different from regular data packets and can be filtered by the wireless provider. It’s been a while since I have done techno stuff, but IIRC, it has to do with which port the packets go through – they simply need to block the VOIP port and you won’t be able to Skype on a plane, thank goodness.

        • Simon says:

          Skype is very good at port hopping. They’d have to do something far better than just block a port to stop Skype from working.

          What I usually do is open up an SSH tunnel to my server at home and tunnel everything through that. Unless they block any and all SSH traffic (not just port 22 obviously), that will let me circumvent pretty much any restriction. Worked great for reading the NYT while in China, too. 😉

          • Jennifer says:

            Well, it’s nice to know that you’re so clever that I’ll be getting hit in the back of the head with your flying laptop, as you attend to your important Skype call during landing.

  8. Siegfried says:

    Sometimes I find this discussion rather ridiculous. Are we so addicted to all the electronic gadgets that we cannot live for 10 minutes during taxi, takeoff and landing without them?

    I am actually glad that at least airplanes are still cell-free zone and I would really appreciate if they would stay like this for the rest of my life.

    • Caz says:

      Very good point – I feel exactly the same way. I don’t understand how people can become so intertwined with their gadgets that they’ll go into withdrawal if they’re without them for 10 – 15 minutes.

  9. Dan says:

    My best friend from undergraduate school went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics and worked for Boeing for many years. He finds the current foo-rah over PED interference quite amusing. He gave me some idea of the rigorous and thorough testing they put every electronic component through to understand and minimize the effects of radio frequency interference *from all the other electronic components in the airplane*, never mind PEDs. RFI gets *lots* of attention; always has.

    On a lighter note, I was on a Southwest flight to Austin one day years ago, and as we taxied toward the terminal after landing the flight attendant got on the PA and said, “Welcome to Kansas City. Somebody must have left their cell phone on.”

  10. Simon says:

    Finally, is all I can say about the iPad/Kindle ban being lifted.

    When it comes to notebooks, they’re still wrong. I simply don’t buy the high-speed projectile story. Not because it couldn’t happen (I’m sure there are plenty of documented cases where exactly that has occurred), but because it happens so rarely.

    The “impact or sudden deceleration” Patrick talks about is something that happens so very rarely I simply don’t accept it being used as a reason to ban use of notebooks during taxi, T/O and landing. I’m sure injuries can be severe in the rare event it actually happens, but I’m just as certain there are hundreds of thousands of lost hours of productivity because of a ban in place even when nothing bad happens at all.

    Ultimately, I reject this notion of banning everything that might just endanger somebody somewhere. This is life. We will get hurt and yes, we will die. There’s nothing to prevent that. Best to just face that fact and learn to live with it.

    Now before I get shouted down just one more thought. Imagine subways. Every once in a while there is an emergency breaking. This a violent event. Everybody not seated will fly through the car. Those people get severely injured at time. Does this really happen? No doubt. Is it serious? Absolutely. But is it a rare event? Yes. And hence, more people are allowed on subway cars than there are seats despite this absolutely real and non-negligible risk. Yep, it’s all about how much we want to sacrifice in the name of “safety”. And the realization that if we try to protect ourselves from every potentially dangerous situation, we won’t be able to lead a normal life anymore.

    • David Kazmierski says:

      It’s only ten or fifteen minutes at each end of the flight that you can’t use your laptop. The sacrifice for increased safety (with regard to projectiles but more importantly the ability to quickly exit the row/airplane in an emergency) is rather small; so, sorry, but your argument is laughable.

      • Simon says:

        To me that sacrifice is significant while the risk is near zero. Hence, I support all efforts to have such bans eradicated.

        Just because you see things differently does not make other people’s arguments “laughable”.

        • Rod Miller says:

          Give me freedom or give me death, eh? How about lifting the requirement to wear a seatbelt on landing and takeoff? I mean the risk being near zero and all.

          No, inertia is bound to be a far stronger force in a landing or takeoff accident than an emergency braking in a subway.
          Nor is a subway full of aviation fuel. Which is why flight attendants are there: not to serve you tepid coffee but to get your ass off the plane in a hurry.
          Loose heavy objects like laptops are incompatible with safety on takeoff and landing. So I think the users, no matter how absorbed, can stow ’em for a few minutes.

          And I agree with Patrick that common sense requires a continued ban on anything that would turn crowded aircraft into a hellish cacophony of squealing cells phones and shouts of “I’m on the plane!” and “Buy low, sell high!” Fisticuffs is very directly what that would lead to.

        • David Kazmierski says:

          But your attempt at a reasoned argument *is* laughable. I’m engaging in this this, here, not because I have so little else to do in my life, but because I think there’s something perhaps worthwhile in doing so.

          “…hundreds of thousands of lost hours of productivity because of a ban in place even when nothing bad happens at all.”

          If I taught rhetoric, I would cite this sentence in class. It’s almost troll-worthy in its “hundreds of thousands of lost hours” and “nothing bad happens at all.” Overstating the case…a little.

          “Ultimately, I reject this notion of banning everything that might just endanger somebody somewhere. This is life. We will get hurt and yes, we will die. There’s nothing to prevent that.”

          Again, laughable. Nothing to prevent that? Not medical science, science in general, workplace safety rules, driving rules, licensing requirements, education, experience, oversight, regulation….? None of that?

          “it’s all about how much we want to sacrifice in the name of ‘safety’. And the realization that if we try to protect ourselves from every potentially dangerous situation, we won’t be able to lead a normal life anymore.”

          Again, not “every” anything. You’re being asked to sacrifice 10 to 15 minutes of access to your laptop so that in the, yes, unlikely event of an emergency situation (1) people will be able to exit the row and the airplane and thus continue living their “normal” lives and (2) your laptop open to your globally important PowerPoint presentation on Q3 sales figures of women’s nude-colored hosiery doesn’t become airborne and decapitate me. “Sacrifice” is really not the right word at all. So, your petulant argument is, I’m sorry to say, again, laughable.

    • Tom Hill says:

      Subways rarely travel at 200 plus m.p.h. It is a very big deal if your head, or the head of someone you care about, is the one whacked by a flying computer. The incidence of injury under such conditions becomes 100 percent.

      • Simon says:

        Speed is not the issue. Acceleration or deceleration is what decides how hard a notebook or a fellow passenger will hit your head. While aircraft might achieve higher speeds on ground, a train’s deceleration during emergency breaking is much greater than what any airliner achieves with its brakes, reversers, etc. In short, the impact forces will at best be comparable.

        The point is it’s always been done one way in air travel and the other way in any other form of travel. And that’s why people think it’s “right” to do it that way. But the fact of the matter is, there is no rational explanation for different treatment. The risk is negligible in both cases simply because these incidents have become so rare. But because air travel used to be “special” people have become used to treating it differently.

  11. Chuck says:

    Everyone seems to forget that airplanes did have phones widely available for a few years. They were so prohibitively expensive, though, that nobody used them. I think I did once or twice for calls under 5 minutes and in both cases the bill for the call was around $20.

    • Rob says:

      While that is a true statement, I believe that those early phones did not use the cellular system. I think they were transmitting/receiving on regular aircraft VHF systems.

  12. Steve says:

    The critics prove far too much with their arguments, and as a result are ultimately not credible.

    I’ll use Christine Negroni’s post as an example, as she is succinct, but the theme is the same in the full report:

    1) The potential for interference depends on the aircraft, its systems and the PED.

    This statement has zero value in making sensible policy. It is a tautology.

    2) Even newer aircraft have sensitive receivers that may be vulnerable to emissions from PEDs.

    Conjecture with no quantification, therefore useless. “The world may be destroyed by an asteroid tomorrow.” That is a true statement, but it changes nothing about what anyone on the planet will do tomorrow.

    3) Some ground based navigational aids may be as receptive to interference now as they were in the 1960s

    Again, “may” is not helpful. Further, do the PED critics really want to go here? If true, then it is imperative to establish and enforce PED-free zones around “Some ground based navigational aids.” After all, if a ground-based aid can be interfered with by a PED some miles away inside an airplane, what happens when a car or hiker passes close by a ground-based aid with a cell phone?

    4) Navigation assistance for ILS approaches may also be impacted

    “May” again. The lowliest GA aircraft augments its ILS with GPS, whether panel-mounted FAA-approved and therefore over $10,000, or far superior moving map display based on an iPad using bluetooth to converse with a $200 GPS receiver.

    Any competent pilot on a low ILS approach will be a) using ALL available navigational information and b) cross-checking for discrepancies, errors, and evidence of malfunction. If a problem occurs, go around and resolve it. Or tell passengers that they really do need to turn off their toys, this time, because of the poor weather.

    I read the objections from the dissenting group. They worry about alarming passengers. So which is it, rely on multiple navigation sources present in all commercial aircraft rated for Cat II approaches, or fixate on the ILS while being so concerned about alarming passengers that you risk a crash rather than tell them to shut down?

    5) Devices transmitting a signal like Wifi or Bluetooth, that can generate spurious signals, are an even greater concern.

    Greater than what? What about Wifi being SOLD on board the aircraft? What about WIFI and bluetooth in the FAA-approved electronic flight bags? Those devices are in the cockpit and presumably even closer to the oh-so-sensitive instruments. While I’m sure pilots are instructed to turn off the wifi/bluetooth, given the sheer number of pilots and operations, I’m equally sure they sometimes fail to do so.

    The anti-PED group loses the argument by failing to acknowledge that there is no such thing as zero risk. Commercial flight is extraordinarily safe in large part because of a robust system that detects and analyzes both accidents and incidents/near misses.

    That robust system has utterly failed to demonstrate a hazard that is significant even in the rarefied world of commercial aviation hazards, where one chance in a million represents a whopping great and wholly unacceptable risk. A few anecdotal reports and investigations that show a “possible” effect from PEDs doesn’t rise to the level of sufficient proof. Given the dismal level of compliance from passengers for arbitrary PED directives, if there was a genuine issue, it would have been unequivocally demonstrated by now.

    the jihad against PEDs has been plainly (to me) rather far over the top for quite some time. This commission should have been convened a full decade ago.

    There are very real consequences to training customers to believe that you and your company are corrupt and stupid. Had the principles that kept PEDs off below 10,000 feet been applied to seat belt air bags, ETOPS, fuel vapor explosions, crash g forces, and a dozen other issues, commercial aviation would have been dead and buried, with planes too heavy to fly and tickets too expensive to buy. Balance is not important, it is imperative.

    • Patrick says:

      The post from Steve, above, gets my “letter of the month” award. His thoughts are articulate, compelling, and provocative.

      For the record, I’m not in the “anti-PED” group. I try to give both sides a place in the discussion because, frankly, I don’t know who to believe anymore.

      My opposition to phones is strong, but it’s not the safety implications that worry me most.

  13. Michal says:

    I have two comments on the usage of phones.

    1. I am pretty sure on every flight there are at least few people who forget to turn off their phones or put them into airplane mode, so I’d say it is safe to assume the phones do no harm, because we have seen no accidents.

    2. Maybe you know this, but for example Emirates provides wireless service on some of their flights, you can use your cell phone to make calls. They turn it off below 10000 ft, but above they must have pretty powerful transmitter that does not interfere. So it also points to the fact that it’s safe.

    Thanks for your blog, Patrick. It’s a joy to read.

    • Chris says:

      I believe the Emirates example cited above, and others, use micro-cell hardware that, in effect, creates a limited cellular network on board the airplane to which (probably only GSM-based) cell phones can connect. This, in turn, is connected via satellite (not via standard cellular networks) to the world at large.

    • Dave says:

      Just to comment on the fallacy that because people sometimes leave their phones on and we’ve not seen any accidents that it is safe to leave phones on. Feel free to argue with my assumptions, but I believe that the central point will still stand.

      * Assume that the probability that a phone causes some kind of interference with aircraft systems is low. Let’s call this low probability one-in-a-million.

      * There are millions of flights being made every year, with hundreds of people on each flight, so low probability events events happen quite a few times every year.

      * Most passengers will never be in an airplane that suffers from an interference related problem, and none would be aware were such a problem to occur during a flight.

      * Most pilots, sitting in the cockpit, will never see one of these events, and thus even asking a random selection of pilots about interference does not get the information required to make an informed decision.

      * Attempting to measure an effect of such a low probability event in terms of number of crashes does not make sense for quite a few reasons:
      * In the event of a crash, it is difficult to discern whether or not the crash was the result of interference or of some other factor
      * Even where interference happens, there is a pilot who flies the plane, and thus interference with instruments should only cause a crash where conditions are bad, the interference happens at a particularly unfortunate time, etc.

      In my opinion, the best way to deal with the potential for interference is to do exactly what the FAA has done which is to ban devices until the airline manufacturers (who have quite a large vested interest in not having planes that crash) are able to test the effect over a wide variation of situations, and to very low probabilities.

      Given the small inconvenience to passengers, I hope that this change was made on the back of evidence and not pressure from passenger groups who either don’t have access to the relevant information, or are unable to interpret them.

      • Rod Miller says:

        “Even where interference happens, there is a pilot who flies the plane, and thus interference with instruments should only cause a crash where conditions are bad, the interference happens at a particularly unfortunate time, etc.”

        “Particularly unfortunate time” would apply to the case in Switzerland alluded to by Patrick. But how ever prove that this was a contributing factor?

        • Dave says:

          That was actually exactly my point. The comment editor removed my indents so apologies if it wasn’t clear that that particular bullet was supposed to be a sub-bullet of “* Attempting to measure an effect of such a low probability event in terms of number of crashes does not make sense for quite a few reasons:”.