Ban on in-flight gadget use: based on fear or evidence?

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

Phone and plane window, courtesy of ShutterstockIn line with its pledge to review the ban on in-flight gadget use, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) late last month announced plans for an industry working group to study the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) in-flight.

On August 31, the FAA asked for public comment, and that's when the floodgates of gadget-deprived passengers truly opened wide.

One strong voice on behalf of the gadget-starved belongs to Mr. Simons and Mr. Chabris - two psychology professors writing for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Their article reported on a poll they conducted of 492 American adults who'd flown in the past year, to find what they called "empirical evidence" of whether PED usage really interferes with airplane navigation systems.

Their findings? People are using them, planes aren't falling out the sky, and therefore,

The ban on electronic devices rests on anecdotes, not on hard evidence - because there isn't any.

From the sample, 40% said they didn't completely turn their phones off during takeoff and landing on their most recent flight.

More than 7% left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and communications functions active.

Another 2% "pulled a full Baldwin," the WSJ reports, actively using their phones when they weren't supposed to.

The origin of the term, for those who don't follow celebrity news: last December actor Alec Baldwin refused to stop playing with the Words With Friends app and got kicked off an American Airlines flight as a result.

Psychologists' Chabris and Simmons extrapolate from these numbers that the odds are "infinitesimal" that all passengers traveling on an average-size US domestic flight have properly turned off their phones.

It's tempting to point to the lack of smoking-wreckage heaps as being proof that using gadgets in-flight is perfectly safe, and that's exactly what this article has done:

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.

The WSJ article suggests that the ban has been in force for so long without evidence to support it because our minds are illogical, relying on "cause detectors" to connect two events that occur close in time, construing cause and effect where none might actually exist:

There is no reason to doubt the anecdotes told by airline personnel about glitches that have occurred on flights when they also have discovered someone illicitly using a device.

But when thinking about these anecdotes, we don't consider that glitches also occur in the absence of illicit gadget use. More important, we don't consider how often gadgets have been in use when flights have been completed without a hitch.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and precaution is a natural response. Regulators are loath to make policies less restrictive, out of a justifiable concern for passenger safety. It is easy to visualize the horrific consequences should a phone cause a plane to crash, so the FAA imposes this inconvenience as a precaution.

This same sentiment, as expressed by WSJ article commenter Lowell Wilson:

An average high school science student could test the "interference" hypothesis, given the right equipment. But the FAA, NASA, the airline industry, and whoever, can not provide evidence that your computer and cell phone impact aircraft systems. In fact, its quite the opposite. We continuously see evidence that airplanes safely take off and land despite these ubiquitous electronic waves.

But the situation may not be as cut and dried as all that.

Plane cockpit, courtesy of ShutterstockOne commenter on Naked Security's March writeup of the FAA's ban review, Walter Shawlee 2, argued that the ban is not only warranted, but absolutely necessary to avoid what he called "overwhelming" problems with land-based networks.

Shawlee's been in avionics for 30+ years and has done what he calls "serious lab work" on the issue.

His description of one experiment illustrates how nuanced the RF problems can be:

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.

I was curious to hear what Shawlee thought about the poll in the WSJ, so I tracked him down.

Here's the thing about what the WSJ article refers to as "empirical evidence", he replied: passengers have no way of knowing what's actually going wrong behind the scenes, regardless of whether or not planes are falling out of the skies.

He writes:

"...the pilot does not come screaming out into the cabin saying, our navs are all dead, please shut off your cell phones!! perhaps they should, maybe people would be more careful."

"The empirical WSJ 'evidence' is merely that the planes don't explode in flight or something similar, NOT that serious problem are avoided in ANY way."

"In fact, hundreds of thousands of incident reports are generated of intermittent system failures constantly. we have no way of really tracking which are caused by what in flight event, BUT since a huge number go 'unresolved' with (NFF) No Fault Found subsequently, we have an increasing suspicion they are directly liked [sic] to passenger device use, especially since we have NASA documented troubleshooting by flight crews which has shown exactly that."

"PROVEN interference exists with compass systems, ILS, COMMs, GPS, and TCAS, and most worrisome, flight deck instruments, which are not really RF devices. the risks are quite real, and as PEDs become deliberate transmitters, rather than incidental ones, the risks to safe flight are escalating."

I don't know how representative Shawlee is of those who work in avionics on these issues, but for his part, he thinks those of us who pine for unfettered in-flight gadgetry need consider our motivations.

Man on phone in plane, courtesy of ShutterstockMany of us who fly have the entitled Alec Baldwin-esque attitude, Shawlee suggests. We see our behavior as justified simply because it suits us, he said, rather than having any real interest in the safety of others.

If Shawlee's right about how intermittent RF interference from devices can be, you simply can't point to the lack of plane carcasses as proof of anything, other than that the people flying these things and orchestrating our navigational infrastructure might well know enough to mitigate whatever dangers PEDs may present.

And in that case, thank you avionics professionals. Regardless of what happens with the ban, we appreciate whatever you do to make sure our planes aren't plummeting.

Plane cockpit, phone and plane window and man on phone in plane images courtesy of Shutterstock

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34 Responses to Ban on in-flight gadget use: based on fear or evidence?

  1. Andy · 1086 days ago

    It's all hype with simply no hard evidence. Clearly demonstrated by a friend of mine, a commercial pilot, who never switches his phone off in the cockpit and frequently makes calls! Is disaster pending for him? I doubt it!

  2. @adamjweeden · 1086 days ago

    "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" - Bert Lance

  3. Moira · 1086 days ago

    I agree with switching phones off on planes- just because it would drive me crazy it everyone's phone started ringing and folks were yapping on them!

    • Mike · 1086 days ago

      People are always talking to each other anyway..And kids always crying...being loud..carrying on. I think a phone call would be more tolerable.

      Besides, do you not have headphones?

    • Anthony Junk · 1083 days ago

      It won't even work on most flights, maybe on small chartered flights. Planes fly too fast for you to keep a signal with any one tower. So unless everyone has a VOIP service on their phone (Google Voice is NOT one) then you have nothing to worry about.

  4. Machin Shin · 1086 days ago

    Really what I don't understand is why more study into this is not done. Especially studies on how to make the airplane systems not so easily disrupted. I mean, if you believe what they are saying then why would anyone need to smuggle a bomb onto a plane? Just bring on cell phone, a radio, laptop and few other things and go at it.

    And I will apologize in advance if the stupid TSA sees this and starts stealing everyone's electronic toys. I'm sure those guys would just love an excuse to get them some shiny new iPads....

    • Lisa Vaas · 1085 days ago

      The reason more study isn't done is that it's very expensive and very onerous. If you go back and read the article I wrote in March when the FAA first said it was reviewing policy, you'll find that I detailed how such testing must be done, with each device—and that means each iteration of each device—having to be taken on an empty flight all by its lonesome to see how it behaves.

      Imagine the cost of fuel for an empty flight for every single device out there, plus Device 1.0, Device 1.1, ad infinitum. Ouch. I mean really, ouch.

      Plus there are plenty of people who say that the cell carriers are the ones who don't want the hassle of passing off signals from way up there, zipping past towers at ridiculously high speeds.

  5. bernt Ostergaard · 1086 days ago

    The article misses the point about smartphones with 'flight mode' ability i.e. switching off all radios on the device but leaving all other apps available. This should take care of avionics professionals concerns. However, I understand that the FAA 'manual on procedures' requires the authority to test every single device before allowing it to operate in-flight. But the overwhelming number of different devices and the ditto number of frequent OS updates makes this impossible. One solution may be to require device manufacturers to provide certification data on their 'flight-mode' to the FAA or some UN-body before releasing the product or the update. As it is avionics professionals are kidding themselves if they think people will stop using their phones on flights - but they may get them to adopt flight mode on take-off and landing.

    • Lisa Vaas · 1085 days ago

      I didn't miss anything about smartphones. The reason I didn't go there is that the FAA is *not* reviewing the ban on cellphone use, just on other devices, including tablets and ereaders.

      So all you people worrying about yappers can relax. They'll still be restricted to very pricey airline-supplied yapping devices.

  6. Gavin · 1086 days ago

    So many people drive while using cell phones all the time, putting themselves and others in danger, and that's inarguably dangerous. The only reason our roads aren't littered with more wrecks is that *most* people choose not to text/phone/check email and drive *most* of the time.

    I say keep the FAA ban going so that *most* airline passengers avoid using their devices *most* of the time. That way, those nuanced effects that possibly cause instrument malfunctions will be that much less likely to occur.

    I strongly dislike very little in life, but I hate that entitled attitude of, "The other sheep can all follow the rules, but I'm an opportunist getting ahead in life." Sorry, no you're not. You're just deluding yourself and having trouble growing into a responsible mature individual.

    Back on topic, I personally enjoy having the perfect excuse to not pick up my phone on the home commute or the occasional few hours of a plane flight. If you have a job (or a game app) that is so critical that you cannot be separated from your device for a moment, whether others' safety is potentially involved or not, why are you traveling in the first place?

    Good article!

    • Lisa Vaas · 1085 days ago

      Glad you liked the article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I, personally, always rolled my eyes about turning off gadgets, but Shawlee has made me rethink that entitled, "I'm smarter than the regulations" attitude. His editor over at Avionics Mag said she was going to post a link to this article, so hopefully we'll hear more from avionics people on this issue.

  7. Sick of the FAA · 1086 days ago

    PED's causing a safety concern is as tired a red herring as coach passengers not using the first class lavatory "for security reasons".

  8. Wayne · 1086 days ago

    Why don't they just make the passenger cabin a Faraday cage? They can do it for a microwave oven, so it can't be that difficult.

    • Kat · 1086 days ago

      Was exactly what I was going to say. You can't fix people, but you can contain the damage you can do. Assume people will use their electronic devices, and build a plane that isolates them. The plane is already a giant metal cage. Making it a Faraday cage has to be easier than trying to get bored, entitled people to behave.

    • Lisa Vaas · 1085 days ago

      Difficult is different from prohibitively expensive. I forgot where I read this or if Walter Shawlee actually mentioned it, but there are new materials out to create cabins that would shield interference. They require building-in on a new plane. Retrofitting is cost-prohibitive. And there aren't a heck of a lot of new planes being built.

  9. Wanderer · 1086 days ago

    This poll proves what I have long suspected. About 80% of people don't take their safety or the safety of others seriously.

  10. Michael · 1086 days ago

    If electronics were actually dangerous, like more dangerous than a bottle of water, do you think they would allow them past the TSA checkpoint?

  11. Ryan · 1086 days ago

    Interesting. I always assumed this was more about keeping passengers attentive during takeoff and landing, when there's a greater risk of a problem. That way they can hear announcements (no loud music in their ears) and evacuate quickly ("Hold on, let my just save this spreadsheet first"), etc.

    Whatever comes of this study, please, please, please, please do NOT allow mobile phone communications during flight! There are already enough rude people without this nuisance.

    • dan · 1086 days ago

      I wholeheartedly agree with your final paragraph ... it is bad enough dealing with people talking loudly on their cell phones in public now without having it happen where you can not simply move away!

  12. MikeP · 1086 days ago

    As an electronics engineer I am aware of the fear that mobile phones, etc could cause interference with flight electronics in the aircraft. A poll of 'users' will tell you nothing about any factual or technical risk, only getting self-interested responses of users in the main.
    Fact is that research has been done by manufacturers of aircraft and electronics devices - which has, so far, shown no significant risk. They are even now equiping aircraft with WiFi services for use in-flight!
    However, many passengers welcome the 'peace and quiet' afforded by not having these devices in use in the aircraft - a bit of peace that is often lacking elsewhere.
    In response to Wayne, the cabin is already a Faraday Cage, because of the metal skin, but the avionics is inside that cage - as are the phones, etc! So all the RF radiations are contained entirely within the aircraft body! And some modern aircraft have carbon fibre cabin skins so they don't provide the shielding effect from outside sources though it does let the signals from inside the aircraft emanate to the the outside environment.

  13. Dee B. · 1086 days ago

    It is true, we do not know what will happen if EVERYONE on the flight has their laptops and cell phones on at the same time. Also, if we allowed it, then some terrorist will find a way to use his PED to do something bad.

    I'm ok with leaving it the way it is. However, more specific explanation would be helpful to those who think it is OK to use their devices on takeoffs and landings.

    • JohnMWhite · 1086 days ago

      You don't think perhaps if terrorists could 'do something bad' with a PED they would have done so already? It's not as if it's difficult to sneakily get away with leaving your laptop or cell phone running while the crew are busy or in their seat for take-off and landing, and it's a lot easier to get them on a plane than to try to get on board with explosive underwear.

      The policy makes no sense and is based on next to no evidence. If they really were afraid of electronic devices significantly interfering with aircraft, they would be much more strict in policing their use and probably confiscate them, as the TSA does with bottled water of all things. It's a piecemeal compromise created by committee, failing to confirm the suspicions or address the concerns of anybody.

      I don't buy Shawlee's explanation - it simply makes the same mistake the WSJ pointed out, confusing correlation with causation and leaping to the assumption that weird glitches in complex systems probably had something to do with somebody's laptop. We need real evidence, and if we have it, we need real enforcement, not this half-hearted approach that makes the phenomenon look like a myth and yet another means of controlling passengers for no good reason.

  14. John Beatty · 1086 days ago

    I really would be worried if I thought that the manufacturers of avionics relied on passengers not using transmitting devices to get their equipment accepted - because they couldn't make them proof against EMI (electromagnetic interference).

  15. J T · 1086 days ago

    A lot of the device concern is having relatively small objects loose in the cabin during takeoff and landing. Perhaps they should just change the rules to "put the device in your pocket or in the seat pocket while we take off/land.

  16. Randy · 1086 days ago

    I saw a great cartoon years go.
    A guy on a plane is working on his laptop. A message pops up on the screen: "Windows has detected new hardware. Would you like to configure AirBus 320 right now?"

    • GreyBeard · 1085 days ago

      Saw another one also years ago:
      A beaming guy to his horrified seatmate: "Look what I can do with my new mobile: Flaps deployed - flaps retracted - flaps deployed ..."

  17. Mr.Victor · 1086 days ago

    Why then did the FAA just approve pilots to view Flight Manuals on iPADs ?

  18. jwalker · 1086 days ago

    "Being asked to switch off your electronic devices during the takeoff and landing phases of a flight now looks even more anachronistic, after American Airlines announced it has been given permission to let its pilots use iPads in the cockpit “in all phases of flight”."

  19. Peter · 1086 days ago

    Faraday Cage...air frame skin..

    Well, clearly it doesn't work particularly well !!

    Better check what animals get best caged.

  20. Brian · 1086 days ago

    The airlines aren't in fear over safety - they're in fear of being sued, like most companies in the US, where their society seems to be built on litigation against anyONE or anyTHING which can be sued when the slightest thing goes wrong. It's pathetic and is unfortunately spreading to their 52nd State, the UK.

  21. Bazaar · 1086 days ago

    Apart from the possible risks to aircraft systems, surely there is one place that we can be without our peace being shattered by phone users , DS players etc during even the shortest of flights. It seems to me that these people are addicted to the whizbang items that they thrive on and will suffer withdrawal symptoms if the umbilical cord to their cyber reality is cut..
    Get a life and come into the real world folks, and show some consideration for others.

  22. U. M. · 1085 days ago

    While electronics won't knock planes out of the sky or wreck any instruments, cell phone signals can interfere with communications between the cockpit and the tower, especially when the plane is low to the ground (during take off, landing and taxing).

    I know this because my husband is a commercial pilot and he had the experience of having a passenger texting during take off and interfering his communication with the tower.

    Not that the pilots can't fly without radio, it's just a huge inconvenience to the pilots, and a safety issue because they can't hear the instructions from the tower... that's all.

  23. Mark · 1085 days ago

    If I recall, the mythbusters did an episode on this and found no evidence with everything they tested of a problem.

    I'm with Machin Shin on this - if it is really that easy to disrupt the electronics/navigation of airplanes, why isn't some work being done to harden them. I can't believe the technology isn't there, the military has been doing it for decades.

  24. Dr. Todd Konicek · 1080 days ago

    As an aviation engineer, i can say with certainty this is absurd, there are much more harmful emf forces at work when flying commercially than anyone admits to, aircraft are hardened to such interference

    In the early days of analog cell phones, they deemed they were a hazard to aircraft, and the .06M/w cellular signal may cause a jet liner to fall out of the sky, in reality when analog CDMA was used, at 7 miles in the air, the cell companies could not bill you, you tied dozens of cell towers up, and in that era of cellular services, there were 1,000's of small cellular companies across the nation

    So this is total phantom science, has no substance, they want you to use the very expensive onboard wifi, and voice services, again it boils down to money

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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.