Want to use your gadgets at takeoff and landing? US FAA to review policy

Filed Under: Featured, iOS, Law & order, Mobile, Vulnerability

phone on airplaneThe US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is going to take a "fresh look" at using personal devices such as e-readers and tablets during takeoff on planes, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

According to the NYT, the FAA will test a variety of gadgets but is staying away from testing smartphones. Bad news if you want to play with your iPhone on flights, good news if you don't want to sit next to yammering people.

Laura J. Brown, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs for the FAA, told the NYT that current rules permit airlines to request use of electronic devices “once the airline demonstrated the devices would not interfere with aircraft avionics”.

Airlines have abstained from doing so because such testing is expensive and difficult. Thus, the FAA is taking it upon itself to ascertain how to test the latest electronics and their effect on airplanes.

As it is, the last time the testing was done was in 2006, before iPads and e-readers such as Kindle existed.

So what's the rationale for not using your phone or other gadget on the plane, particularly given that you can use Wi-Fi, watch movies, and play video games on flights?

Theory holds that gadgets' electromagnetic emissions could interfere with navigational instruments in the cockpit.

Gadget use could possibly result in instrument problems, as phones in the cabin could exceed the rated allowable interference levels for some aircraft avionics.

In fact, reports from flight crews of anomalies that they believe were caused by electronic devices (confirmed by switching the passengers' devices on and off and watching the resulting effects on the wonky systems) prompted a 2000 study by Boeing.

However, even after Boeing purchased the alleged offending devices from passengers and rigorously tested them, the aerospace company couldn't reproduce the anomalies. The report's conclusion:

As a result of these and other investigations, Boeing has not been able to find a definite correlation between PEDs and the associated reported airplane anomalies.

airplaneAs Wired pointed out in a 2008 article, since the 1960s, cockpits and communications systems have been protected against electromagnetic meddling through safeguards like shielded wiring and support structures.

And as Wired also pointed out in that same article, much of the resistance to allowing gadgets, at least back in 2008, came not from research showing that they were dangerous but instead from the call carriers.

In other words, the real danger of using your cellphone during a flight or during lift-off was that you'd harm call carrier profits. After all, it can get kind of hairy to keep those signals flowing in the wind, as Wired describes:

When phones ping for signals at 35,000 feet, they can hit hundreds of towers at once, necessitating complicated parsing of roaming agreements. Providers don't want the hassle if they're not being properly compensated, so the government has left the plane ban in place.

ABC News 20/20 came to the same conclusion in a December 2007 report: The primary reason for the ban on phone use in-flight is that neither the FAA nor the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) want to pony up the money to perform conclusive safety tests.

Likewise, for their part, the airlines just don't see any return on investment for paying for the tests.

FAA logoAs the NYT's Nick Bilton notes, the FAA's change of heart might well be a sign that it's bowing to public pressure. A quote from the FAA's Ms. Brown:

“With the advent of new and evolving electronic technology, and because the airlines have not conducted the testing necessary to approve the use of new devices, the FAA is taking a fresh look at the use of personal electronic devices, other than cellphones, on aircraft.”

But as Mr. Bilton says, it's certainly not time to leave the magazines and paperbacks at home quite yet. He chatted with Abby Lunardini, vice president of communications at Virgin America, who explained what the testing would require. He writes about how excruciatingly laborious and expensive this testing will be:

The current guidelines require that an airline must test each version of a single device before it can be approved by the F.A.A. For example, if the airline wanted to get approval for the iPad, it would have to test the first iPad, iPad 2 and the new iPad, each on a separate flight, with no passengers on the plane.

It would have to do the same for every version of the Kindle. It would have to do it for every different model of plane in its fleet. And American, JetBlue, United, Air Wisconsin, etc., would have to do the same thing. (No wonder the F.A.A. is keeping smartphones off the table since there are easily several hundred different models on the market.)

Onerous, yes. Expensive, for sure.

But is all that necessary to protect our security?

It certainly doesn't appear so. This isn't really a story about security. This doesn't boil down to passenger safety.

It just boils down to money, masquerading as security concerns.

Are you pining to use your iPad and Kindle on the plane? If you could push the "engage" button on airlines lifting the ban without more exhaustive, expensive testing, would you?

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12 Responses to Want to use your gadgets at takeoff and landing? US FAA to review policy

  1. Trevor · 1293 days ago

    Something has to be finalised as on my last flight from Hong kong to the UK a number of nearby passengers totally ignored the warnings being given over the PA. A number were looking for lcal mast signals on their phones during landing but there were no comments from the cockpit as to interference perceived.

  2. I'm from Canada, and I use my Kobo eReader all the time on flights from Toronto to Ottawa, etc.

  3. GKreader · 1293 days ago

    This has been proven long ago that cellphones and other electronic devices don't interfere with navigation equipment. All they had to do was watch Mythbusters on TV. As the article states, it's just a money grab thing from the providers that the airlines don't want to pony up.

  4. Ink wench22 · 1293 days ago

    Like cigarette smoking, talking to yourself or into a cell phone should be banned inside planes, supermarkets, department stores or in public facilities. it's a matter of privacy...I am sick of listening to family fights, people who are so bored and boring they must share long moments of silence, strange noises and chuckles just to hear themselves. Just an observance but it's amazing how much communication has worsened with all these improved means of communication.

    The worse form of punishment is being stuck in an enclosed space in a doctor's office, elevator or airplane where the noise equals the floor of the New York stock exchange!

    • Andrew · 1293 days ago

      Interesting that the banning of smoking led to a decrease in the air quality onboard flights though. Because the airline isn't required to filter the air as frequently, they don't because it saves them money. The air onboard was infact cleaner when smoking was permitted.

      As for the rest of your complaints, try to relax and enjoy it... makes everything much more pleasant.

      • James · 1292 days ago

        Don't be a patronizing idiot, Andrew. Ink wench22's points are legitimate and your suggestion to "try to relax" is idiotic. Why should someone crammed into a confined space have to "relax" while listening to some moron babble about nothing on their cell phone? We'll see how much they "relax" when I tire of listening to them and break their phone.

        • Andrew · 1291 days ago

          And we will see how you relax in a prison cell for assault, criminal damage and probably the severity of those crimes increased by the virtue of it happening in the air.

          I wasn't being patronising, merely stating that they have as much right to talk on a flight as you have to not speak. They paid the same ticket price you did. You wouldn't lash out at someone on a bus, how is a flight any different?

          Buy some decent headphones and put some music on if you are so antisocial that you can't even tolerate people talking to one another. I spose you attack babies on flights for crying at take-off and landing too?

      • electroman · 1286 days ago

        @ Andrew

        There are no filters and the air on a commercial aircraft is not recirculated.

        Your information is all bogus.

  5. DT Touchpad · 1293 days ago

    Forward this article to Alec Baldwin. I'm certain with his "tarmac experience" that he and Capital One could make a whole series of commercials supporting the use of tablets and e-readers on aircraft - heck, maybe even cell phones with "Words With Friends". I wonder, though, if Capital One sells accidental-death flight insurance, just in case...

  6. Geir · 1293 days ago

    I recently fly with Thai air from Norway to Thailand and used my Kindle DX from taxi to we was in the air. I had the 3G on it turned off and just read with it. Nobody of the crew said anything about it.

  7. walter shawlee · 1293 days ago

    I have worked in the avionics business for 30+ years both in service and design and have done some serious lab work on the PED problem, with several published articles to document what we found. First, no question, airborne cell use is simply not allowable, the problems it generates with land based networks are overwhelming (and not just for cost reasons), AND it is currently prohibited by law, so you can just forget that one for now.

    In addition, having multiple users on line simultaneously can produce significant RF interference at high signal levels, plus sum and difference signals with other interference sources that are almost impossible to predict or eliminate, especially with regards to low level NAV aids. There exists NO proof of any kind that these signals CANNOT interfere with on board systems. it's easy to show, people who think otherwise are simply unaware of key topics like physics and electronics.

    One interesting experiment done a few years ago in our lab showed that a fully FCC approved IBM laptop could easily block VOR reception, depending on the exact software run, and what it was doing at the time, This situation required low level signals (e.g.simulating far from the VOR station). This only makes sense, as the primary emissions are the address and data bus lines, which of course are dependent on what the CPU is doing. This probably explains some of the difficulty in reproducing "events" after the fact. Plus, most interference problems are combinatorial, meaning that it is the SUM of various effects that finally causes the on board system to behave unexpectedly.

    Very low level NAV signals (GPS) pose an even bigger problem, as the noise floor (even out of band) can become so significant, even though the offending items are "out of band", that navigation is stopped. here, the combinations and permutations are simply too complex to model well. We found toys, CD players, laptops and literally everything electronic to be significant emitters, and those lacking FCC approval to sometimes be incredibly bad, and in band emitters to boot. It is the close physical proximity (sometimes only a few feet) to overhead antennas or windows that is the issue for interference.

    So, how to fix this? The answer is surprisingly simple, it requires the passenger cabin area to be fully shielded (a light continuous foil, with some additional Rf absorbent foam or screens in key places like air ducts can do it), which includes all windows (easily done now with transparent conductive coatings), AND for all antenna feedlines to be double shielded to avoid exposing the ground return to ambient RF emissions. In addition, any wiring run within the shielded cabin has to be Rf suppressed when it enters and exits, this includes entertainment and lighting. This is not trivial, but is doable.

    The cost and difficulty of doing this are probably too severe on existing planes, BUT could easily be incorporated into new designs with some planning. The rub here is that many new designs are using high levels of composites, which have zero RF shielding capability, thus making the over-all problem much worse than before.

    Why don't all planes go off course or crash when I turn on my laptop or ebook reader? simple, the metal skin of the airframe and internal shielding can normally prevent any unwanted coupling, AND your single device is only rarely the "in-band-emitter" that creates the problem. it is often combinations of signals, AND specific airframe locations, AND specific frequencies in use for nav or com operation that create issues.

    Generally, the smaller the plane, the bigger the potential problems. size works in your favor, bigger is generally harder to interfere with (inverse square law, coupling proximity and other considerations). small aircraft, helicopters and any planes with significant composites are most at risk. large metal planes (other than those that are fly-by-wire) are safest. the FBW planes have an additional risk factor, which is potential high energy pulse interference from on board transmitters (you cell, for example) which can potentially interfere with control operation into cabin run wiring.

    finally, yes there are MANY documented cases of specific PED interference, and NASA keeps a database on line of the more serious ones. Do not ascribe the concerns about this issues to some nefarious plot to aid land based cell operators, or other weird airline agendas, the issues are real, and potentially serious. That they rarely occur is a tribute to very good airframe and avionics engineering, that they do occur is a factor of vastly increased RF activity in what people now carry with them. Eventually, the increased threat load overwhelms even the best engineering, and then something unexpected takes place.

  8. Melb. · 1293 days ago

    I remember discussing this with a senior aircraft engineer back in the 90's.
    He told me that all the instruments are shielded & encased in lead to stop the EMI from lightning, which he said was on the order of 1 million times more intense then anything a mobile could put out (at that stage), thus the ban wasn't actually related interference but came from the local mobile carrier whom complained that take offs & landings which were clogging the mobile towers around the airports & the suburbs.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.