Airplanes And Electronics: It's Time To Stop The Silliness

-September 26, 2012

I recently learned that American Airlines received FAA approval for its pilots to begin using iPads in the cockpit during all phases of Boeing 777 flights, notably including takeoff and landing. By replacing an approximately 35 lb. bag full of reference documents and manuals with the sub-2 lb. Apple tablet, American Airlines claims that it'll save as much as $1.2 million per year in fuel, calculated based on today's prices. And perhaps obviously, American Airlines is petitioning the FAA for permission to expand iPad use to all airplanes in its fleet.

Admittedly, we're talking about one (or maybe a couple) of tablet computers, versus a main cabin full of electronics devices. And admittedly, the passengers in the main cabin aren't going to see the pilot and co-pilot using the iPad(s). But I wouldn't be surprised if folks who heard about the FAA waiver (the recent news was covered not only in the tech press but also in a number of newspapers and other general-audience forums) would subsequently feel miffed that they didn't get to listen to their iPods, read from their Kindles, etc during the entire flight, too.

Similarly, I found myself on non-Southwest Airlines flights for the first time in a long time this past week, traveling to and from Boston for the Embedded Vision Summit. I wasn't particularly surprised to find LCD screens for all passengers, along with power outlets some of the seats (although SeatGuru had indicated that they wouldn't exist). In fact, I was surprised to not encounter in-flight Wi-Fi service. To wit, I was mildly surprised to see that the video service was DirecTV-branded; I'm assuming that the planes are being fed by an on-board satellite dish (thereby begging the question of why they aren't also offering satellite-based Internet service, although I realize that most carriers have now switched to cellular-based approaches), although it could have just been a DirecTV-branded conventional on-board video server setup.

But what really surprised me was that the LCDs remained active during the entire flight, including takeoff and landing. The engineer in me could rationalize that the airplane manufacturer had included sufficient EMI shielding for the mission-critical systems to enable always-active video. But I'm presuming that most folks on my planes didn't have engineering education jobs. And therefore, again, this presents a poor role-modeling scenario; the airline is telling passengers to shut their electronics devices off, while simultaneously streaming images over the LCDs stuck smack-dab in front of their faces.

Mohit Arona published an interesting blog post a couple of weeks ago, entitled "Mobile phone interference with plane instruments: Myth or reality?" which got quite a bit of reader traffic and comments. Arona did a pretty thorough job of discussing why the FAA ban on electronics during takeoff and landing, as well as the more general ban on active cellular subsystems during the entire flight, might make technical sense especially for older planes or those in which the designers might not want to over-burden the aircraft's weight with extra shielding (see above). Arona also did a pretty thorough job of covering the non-technical reasons why a ban might make sense, such as in striving to prevent various terrorist activities.

But here's the thing...we have thousands of case studies every day which suggest that abundant electronics usage on planes throughout the entire flight cause no problems. Those thousands of case studies are the thousands of flights that occur every day, all over the world. The vast majority of passengers, I'd wager, have no clue that "airplane mode" even exists on their handsets, far from how to enable and disable it. As I wrote about way back in early 2007, they also don't extrapolate "cellular" beyond "cellphone" to include other relevant devices, such as cellular data subsystems built into tablets and laptops, and to cellular modems plugged into USB ports and other expansion buses. And they completely ignore the directive to completely power off their handsets prior to takeoff and landing.

Don't believe me? Check out a recently published writeup in the Wall Street Journal, entitled "Do Our Gadgets Really Threaten Planes?". Here's an excerpt:

To gather some empirical evidence on this question, we recently conducted an online survey of 492 American adults who have flown in the past year. In this sample, 40% said they did not turn their phones off completely during takeoff and landing on their most recent flight; more than 7% left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active. And 2% pulled a full Baldwin, actively using their phones when they weren't supposed to.

Consider what these numbers imply. The odds that all 78 of the passengers who travel on an average-size U.S. domestic flight have properly turned off their phones are infinitesimal: less than one in 100 quadrillion, by our rough calculation. If personal electronics are really as dangerous as the FAA rules suggest, navigation and communication would be disrupted every day on domestic flights. But we don't see that.

To be clear, the longstanding FAA directive doesn't bother me from a behavioral standpoint. I always bring a book or few, and/or a short stack of magazines, on flights with me, and I'm content to peruse them until I get the electronics all-clear announcement (and again during landing...although in both cases, I'm often cat-napping anyway). And believe me, the last thing I want next to me is some jerk jabbering away on a cellphone the entire (or even parts of) the flight.

But as an engineer, the current FAA policy bugs me to no end, because all the real-life evidence I see suggests that it's unnecessary. As the Wall Street Journal article notes, the FAA is in the process of re-evaluating its ruling, with an eye toward potentially loosening the policies. To which I say "it's about friggin' time." I just hope that the FAA doesn't decide to allow in-flight cellphone voice (or cellular data or Wi-Fi-based VoIP, for that matter) call use. Otherwise, the FAA might end up having to deal with a rash of passenger rage cases.

Also see:

Mobile phone interference with plane instruments: Myth or reality?

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