A frequent flier's views on flying and travel

Does it have an “Off” switch?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the different kinds/types of personal electronic devices carried by passengers on airplanes, and if they really need to be turned off during takeoff and landing.

Some of the comments, while well meant, are very un-informed. Other conversations have tended to the ridiculous, and then there is the very vocal minority who mostly share very self-serving and biased point of views.

My view? Shut them off. Shut them all off. Anything and everything with an “Off” switch. Let’s be honest with each other, during the time from leaving the gate to 10,000 ft, and from 10K to ground, some things are simply not going to happen if your electronics are Off. Your company is not going to enter bankruptcy, the Earth will not stop spinning on its axis, and the Universe will not cease to function even though you are disconnected for a few minutes. Being more blunt: You are just not that important, so please place your ego into the overhead bin with your carry-on luggage for 15 minutes.

But what is my basis for saying this? What makes me “smarter” about cell phones, smart phones, PDA’s, and other electronic devices than the next guy? I am an Electrical Engineer and a manager, and it’s been my job. While working for 2 different companies, my teams were responsible for the evaluation, production, testing, and delivery of the RF IC’s used in many of these devices, with total shipments of around 1 Billion units. Considering the size of the world population, there is a very good chance that some of “our” RF ICs are in your devices. A very good chance. And I know first-hand how they are tested, what they can do, and what happens as they age and fail. And that’s why I make sure that all of my personal electrical equipment is Off for every takeoff and landing.

Let me back up a step though, and start with the original reason why “cell phones” had to be turned off. This had nothing to do with the FAA or NTSB, it was because of the FCC. Basically, it is because cell phones don’t talk directly to each other, they talk to ground stations (cell towers), and as you move around a city, your phone switches automatically between the closest base stations. Now imagine you live near the approach to LAX, and there are dozens of planes, each carrying 100-300 passengers going by overhead. This many phones all trying to ‘jump’ towers all at the same time would swamp the local area network, making it difficult/impossible for anyone on the ground to make a call. So the FCC required them to be off. The FAA/NTSB recognized this as a no-cost issue, with little/no impact on passengers, possibly with a safety benefit, and make it a requirement.

“But this is a PDA” It isn’t a cell phone, or “This is a smart-phone, much more advanced than a cell phone”, so I shouldn’t have to turn it off… Wrong ! Wrong !! Wrong !!! Every “smart phone” and most PDA’s are also cell phones. It’s just that those terms had not yet been invented when the original ban was put in place. So you can quote the FAA directive (14 C.F.R § 91.21), and then tell me it only requires “cell phones” to be off. And you are right, and you are wrong. Only a lawyer would try to squirm through that gap. If it duplicates the function of a cell phone, then it is a “cell phone”. It doesn’t matter that it can also run Windows, browse the web, take photographs, and let you play Sudoku. If it can make a call, it is a “cell phone” as defined in that document.

“But this is a new airplane” is another argument that I hear a lot. Surely a brand new Boeing/Airbus with all its brand new systems can’t be incapacitated by a $50 electronic device.

I think you are right, probably. In fact, for a new airplane I’d say you are 100% right. The risk is so low as to be irrelevant. But what if the equipment you are in is a 10 year old B737 that has gone through 10-thousand takeoffs and landings, with constant engine vibration, turbulence, a few hard landings, and some of the shielding and protection around the electronics have started to fray? What if the phone you are using is starting to malfunction and is leaking RF energy at a frequency it is not supposed to? What if you put these two things together? What if there are several phones on that one flight that are not exactly working right?

Do you want to be on that flight? I think not. So just play it safe and turn them off.

Could we allow them on some planes, but not on others? First of all how would you regulate that? And how do you make a determination of when an airframe is “old” enough that there starts to be a risk of interference from your device with the cockpit avionics? Does it make sense that in the three legs of a trip you could have your device “On” for one leg, but have to turn it “Off” for the other two? That is such a needless complexity that the easy answer is for everyone to turn off everything on every takeoff and landing.

“But this is an MP3 player” or “This is a DVD player” or “this is an iPad but I put it in airplane mode”. There are a thousand different electronic devices that you might have with you. Do you really expect the FA’s to recognize every single one, and decide on the spot if yours is OK, but your neighbors device is not? And how does your FA know that you really did put it into airplane mode? Consider how difficult it would be on a full flight for the FA’s to check every passenger with an “On” device to ensure it either lacks RF, or is actually in airplane mode. That’s just impossible. So turn everything off!

“So do I have to turn off my pacemaker”? Don’t be ridiculous. A pacemaker doesn’t have an On/Off switch, and the regulations clearly exempt medically necessary equipment, like pacemakers, hearing aids, and portable oxygen concentrators. And these are all safe because none of them use any form of RF signals or energy to perform their jobs. Although you may want your phone on, and “need” it to be on, that is not a medically necessary condition. Even if you can get some Web-based Doctor to write a prescription for you saying you “have” to have your cell phone on during a takeoff, guess what? You lose. Turn it off.

And what is the risk? Is it even real?…

“In one telling incident, a flight crew stated that a 30-degree navigation error was immediately corrected after a passenger turned off a DVD player and that the error reoccurred when the curious crew asked the passenger to switch the player on again. Game electronics and laptops were the culprits in other reports in which the crew verified in the same way that a particular PED caused erratic navigation indications.” [IEEE Spectrum magazine, “Unsafe at any airspeed” March 1 2006]

And in this example:

In 2011, as a regional airliner was climbing past 9,000 feet, its compasses reportedly went haywire on short notice. In a confused panic, the pilots accidentally navigated several miles off course until… an iPhone on board was finally turned off.

Although iPhones are supposed to be turned off during takeoff and landing, a flight attendant had to persuade a passenger who wasn’t following the rules to turn off his iPhone.

The timing of the cellphone being turned off coincided with the moment where our heading problem was solved,” the co-pilot on that flight recently told NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System. Although the plane landed safely, it reinforced concerns about the role smartphones play in airline safety

Laboratory tests have shown some devices broadcast radio waves powerful enough to interfere with airline equipment, according to NASA, aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. (BA) and the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority.

With passengers clamoring for expanded in-flight use of mobile technologies, this desire remains at odds with the engineers and technicians possessed of the belief that these devices could endanger all passengers on an aircraft.

Any decision with regard to expanding or restricting mobile device usage in-flight “should be based on science, not on politics or passengers’ desires to stay connected,” John Cox, a former airline pilot and safety expert, tells Bloomberg. [Michael Essany / Bloomberg, August 2009]

And then this too:

“Auto pilot was engaged,” … “At about 4500 ft, the autopilot disengaged by itself and the associated warnings/indications came on. [Flight attendants] were immediately advised to look out for PAX [passengers] operating electronic devices. … [Attendants] reported that there were 4 PAX operating electronic devices (1 handphone and 3 iPods).” The crew used the public address system to advise the passengers to shut off electronic devices “for their safety and the safety of the flight,” after which the aircraft proceeded “without any further incident.” [Brian Ross / Avni Patel, ABC News, June-9-2011]

That’s enough evidence for me. But let me ask you this, what if these last two incidents had happened at 400 feet, at night, in bad weather and during a landing, instead of being at 4500 to 9000 feet after a takeoff? The reality is that if there had been a crash, there would be no way to know that it was caused by a phone or any other electronic device because RF energy is not monitored by or recorded in the flight data recorders. The crash would probably just be assigned to “pilot error” or “wind shear”. So how often has this already happened?

Nobody knows for sure. But if it can happen, it can also be prevented.

What does Boeing say ? It’s not necessarily that a phone can bring down an airplane. That’s not really the issue. The issue is interfering with the airplane and causing more work for pilots during critical phases of flight.  And I would just add that landing is a critical phase, and when it’s bad weather, and it’s at night, do you want your device to interfere with the pilots right then? And what do you think might happen if multiple (+100) devices are on, instead of just one?

This kind of interference event can easily be prevented by keeping them all OFF during taxi, takeoff/landing, and I would hope avoid a crash.

Still doubting? Cirrus Aircraft, a well known and well respected general aviation supplier specifically stated: “Unplug portable electronic devices, they can affect comm radios in mild p-static atmospheric conditions”

Sure, we all know that some phones do get left on, because people sometimes forget. In one study using RF monitoring equipment carried in the overhead luggage space, 25% of flights in the domestic US had at least one active RF device on within the cabin. But it is also obvious that with more devices left on, the chance (the very slight chance) of interfering with the cockpit avionics increases. The simplest answer is to get the traveling community to acknowledge that for those two brief periods in every flight, it is in everyone’s interest to do the smart thing, the right thing. And turn off all electronics, and that’s everything with an “Off’ switch.

So all I ask is that you learn a bit more about how these devices operate, consider the real risk (however small) that each active device represents, and then realize that turning all of them off for a few minutes at the start and end of every flight is a trivially simple insurance policy for all of us.

Update, Oct 2013. FAA has recently announced (via Associated Press) that some devices (but NOT cell phones) may be allowed to remain on even during taxi and TO/L. Obviously the FAA is bowing to pressure from a specific Congresswoman who was very upset she had to be disconnected. But think the consequences through… “What it does allow is the reading of e-books, listening to music, playing games, watching movies and generally doing work, the AP reports, citing officials who asked not to be named because the FAA asked them not to discuss the recommendations publicly.”

This means that Pax are allowed to continue to play Soduko, to work on their latest PowerPoint slides, to read (or listen) to an Ebook, to watch a movie, or listen to jazz on their iPad. Leave the possible interference with cockpit electronics aside for a moment. Obviously those Pax will not be paying much attention to pre flight safety briefings, like how to use a seatbelt, and are also unlikely to hear any instructions at all through their headphones during the most critical and dangerous portions of each flight.

Here is another sobering thought… This FAA review supposedly was to review the idea of possibly allowing active devices on airplanes during taxi Takeoff/Landing. But this review actually did not look at active devices. They only examined single devices, not a plane load of 150 passengers each with a different kind of PED turned on (and God only knows how many would forget to select airplane mode).

This study ignored a realistic real-world situation. The FAA and their review was (once again) a sham.

So FAA, your new regulations really mean that you have “no problem” with letting Pax ignore safety briefings, and crew instructions, and information from the flight deck during taxi and TO/L. You might as well follow through, and just do away with any requirement for any airline to do any safety announcements of any kind, since you are now saying its more important that a Pax can listen to jazz.

And you don’t see any difference between a single device being on in a cabin, and 100 devices being on. Are you serious?

Get a life FAA!! You don’t exist to keep a Congresswoman and Alec Baldwin happy. You exist to ensure the highest possible safety standards for all passengers. And if you allow PED’s to be on & headphones in use during taxi and TO/L, you have failed.


3 comments on “Does it have an “Off” switch?

  1. I enjoyed this piece and the relevant data you provide. There’s been so much discussion about this issue… Whatever the supposed risk is, isn’t it nice to just be unplugged sometimes? I’d rather sleep or read a book when I fly, although I have blogged on occasion (that’s pleasure though). It’s the only time you “have an excuse” not to do anything – what’s not to love about that? Like you said, the world won’t end…


    • jlroehr
      September 1, 2013

      I am reminded of Desiderata (Max Ehrmann) “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. “


  2. Pingback: FAA To Relax Ban On In-Flight Electronics : Travelpro Luggage Blog

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This entry was posted on August 12, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .
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