Do We Really Need to Turn Our Electronic Devices Off During Takeoff and Landing?

We are all familiar with the instructions to power down anything with an on/off switch before takeoff or landing. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits use of electronics when the cabin door is closed for departure and the seat belt light is turned on, and also when the plane is landing.

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But just how dangerous are these electronic devices? Many frequent fliers consider their gadgets as a nice antidote to the stress that comes from booking cheap flights and being herded like cattle through security and boarding. Here is the current state of regulations about passenger use of electronics during flights.

The Rule
The FAA says that passengers are not allowed to operate “any portable electronic device” on a plane that is in operation. However, airlines usually allow use of laptops, tablet computers, and gaming devices that do not emit radio signals once the aircraft has climbed above an altitude of 10,000 feet.

The Reason for the Rule
FAA rules on electronics on flights were enacted because of fears that transmissions from them could interfere with aircraft navigation and communication systems. Furthermore, a Federal Communications Commission ruling prohibits the use of cell phones on planes in flight because of concerns they would interfere with ground-based cellular networks. Those who have studied aircraft electronics state that the risks are very small, but consider the FAA rule to be a case of “better safe than sorry.”

Tests on Aircraft Electronics Systems
The FAA admits it does not know of any plane accidents linked to interference caused by personal electronics, but they still prefer to err on the cautious side. Anecdotal evidence is sketchy too, though there has been one report of a Boeing 757’s fuel gauge going blank after takeoff but then recovering function later in the flight. The crew in that case suspected that passenger electronic devices on board were responsible for the glitch.

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A 2003 study by Carnegie Mellon University concluded that though there is no evidence of any accidents being caused by passenger electronics, the risk is still real. The report by the authors of the study said, “The data support a conclusion that continued use of portable (radio frequency)-emitting devices such as cell phones will, in all likelihood, someday cause an accident by interfering with critical cockpit instruments such as GPS receivers.”

Are Changes Coming?
The FAA shows no indication of changing the rules for passengers any time soon. Ironically, the FAA did recently give approval for pilots to use iPads in the cockpit at any time, including during takeoff and landing. The first airline to adopt this practice on its 777s is American Airlines.


Published: December 29, 2011