Nonsense and Paranoia at 35,000 Feet: Why Are Electronics Still Banned on Flights?

PHOTO: Man using smartphone on airliner
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There you sit on a modern jetliner with a million things to do, your laptop, Kindle, smartphone and iPad at the ready, and in an act of massive hostility to the ethos of American productivity, the flight crew orders you to shut everything down for takeoff or landing.

Is this irritating inconvenience really necessary?

As far as obeying the instructions of your flight crew, the answer is YES.

As far as having any basis whatsoever in fact or science (that the electronic signals from all your equipment might interfere with anything on the aircraft's systems), the answer is a resounding NO.

Confused? So is the FAA, which has essentially refused to undertake the appropriate research on this issue since cell phones popped up in the mid-80's.

Back then, when handheld cell phones were as big as a brick and put out a whopping five watts of analog power, the FAA turned to the Federal Communications Commission and asked whether such devices were safe. "Does it look like we have wings?" was the unofficial response of one FCC staffer at the time -- an individual who helped draft the letter back to FAA pointing out none too delicately that things that flew were the FAA's responsibility, not the FCC's.

The FAA disagreed, of course, and after more than a quarter century, both federal agencies are still in a standoff with neither willing to put forth the funds and the time to determine once and for all whether passenger electronics have any scientifically-proven potential of disrupting an airliner's equipment to the degree of compromising safety.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. In the absence of the government answering the question -- and with personal electronics proliferating -- the airline industry threw up their collective hands in collective disgust and decided they were honor-bound to take the most conservative course of action: If personal electronics weren't certified safe, they wouldn't be allowed on during the most critical portions of flight, which are takeoff and landing (when accuracy of cockpit instruments is critical).

Meanwhile, the FAA -- still sidestepping the responsibility of doing the appropriate research -- recognized that the numbers and types of personal electronics were accelerating so significantly that if they undertook the task to individually certify each type, the agency would be doing little else. Worse, if they ever got it wrong and something bad happened, there would be hell to pay in public and Congressional criticism (federal agencies are, at heart, paranoically risk-averse).

So the FAA consecrated in regulations what the airlines had already done and walked away from the issue. Meanwhile, totally unconfirmed anecdotal reports from pilots, incomplete or totally inconclusive university studies, and other attempts to bring clarity to the issue have failed utterly to prove that there either is or is not a threat. In fact, despite thousands of pages written on the subject, there has never been a single U.S. incident of interference investigated and scientifically confirmed beyond question. Not one.

On every commercial flight, every hour of every day, there is at least one cell phone still on during takeoff and landing. People forget, they refuse or they just don't know how to turn the things off. How do we know? The devices ring!

There are 32,000 commercial flights per day over the U.S. alone. That means we test the hypothesis that personal electronics can interfere with aircraft systems 32,000 times per day just over the U.S., and yet we have not a single, solitary confirmed instance.

But here's the outrageous part: If there was even a slight chance that personal electronics could be dangerous -- and knowing that people don't turn all of them off in flight -- why would any sane regulator or airline allow even one device aboard with the battery attached?

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