Snapped this photo on my last flight. Did my phone disrupt the plane’s operations?

“Could you please turn off your _____ (insert electronic device here)?”

You’ve certainly heard this instruction given by a flight attendant, either to you or someone else, before the takeoff and landing of an airplane.

But let’s be real: is there actually any validity to it?

This interesting article from the New York Times shows how there is no scientific evidence that proves a device can harm a plane’s operations, and cites a NASA report to prove it.

This debate has picked up media steam over the past year or so — remember that famous Alec Baldwin/Words With Friends incident? — and the FAA in August announced plans to establish a group to study the use of portable electronic devices during flight (not for cell calls).

It does seem a little odd that pilots are now allowed to use iPads in the cockpit to replace paper-based reference manuals, while passengers are still told to completely shut off their phones, laptops and tablets.

I’ll admit I’ve “cheated” a few times and kept my iPod or phone running during those “no electronic device” time periods. I often figure my music won’t affect the plane — I’ve never read about it happening nor heard of anything similar.

Minutes before my flight last week to Washington D.C., I waited for a flight attendent to notice the headphones on my head, but instead she spoke over the intercom and told us to be on the “honor code” to turn off our devices. I doubt everyone on the plane shut down their phones.

Here are some of the comments on the NYT piece:

Aristotle from Washington: The FAA rule is plain absurd. Anybody who has been on private aircraft knows there are no rules against the use of mobile phones or other electronics devices during take-off, flight or landing. I flew for several years on Air Force One and we never had to turn off our phones or laptops. Apparently the President was not deemed to be in danger from these electronic wave emitters…

CM from Los Angeles: I am a pilot.
I believe the rules were created in advance of a potential problem in order to cut said problem off at the pass before it actually happens. In aviation we don’t wait for a crash to decide how to handle things. We try to reduce the likelihood of them happening to start with. In aviation the airlines do not need to spend millions of dollars to decide whether not your ipad usage poses a risk in flight. All they need to do is let the pilot’s decide. Me personally, I don’t care if you use it or not, but I do care if you become an upset brat when asked to turn it off.

Ssgt In the U.S. Air Force from Boston: No people….there is NO hazard. It’s a myth. I am a crew chief aboard a military transport, and on any given day, we transport a hundred or more soldiers, who on takeoff, inflight, and on landing, may have their devices going at full strength as they wish…..because we know better.

After a few hundred flights with ZERO incident, and after flying on commercial, civilian airlines 50+ times with my cellphone on in my pocket, like thousands of other passengers daily, there is no danger. It has been studied, it has been proven.

Not being a civilian airline and not being subjected to the same safety regulations, our electronic equipment is not nearly as shielded, and we never have problems. The FAA is antiquated and useless.

Gareth from Chicago: The danger is belied by the fact that no one actually turns their devices off anymore. They just turn off the screen to make the flight attendant happy. If there were a danger, they should already be seeing it.

Will we be able to ditch these antiques and use our own cell phones to make calls in the air someday?

While it would be nice to answer that extra email, or tweet out your latest brainwave during takeoff and landing, it could be really annoying to have several people blabbering on their phones on the plane. When I rode the trains in Japan, we were instructed to move in-between the cars in a specified “cell-phone talking area” so to not disrupt other passengers. Not sure how that would work on planes, where wireless advances could soon enable us to easily Skype our friends and family from the air without payment and without connection problems.

I’m interested to see if the regulations change for electronic devices, not just during airplane flights, but also all transportation. The problem of texting and driving, for example, continues to grow.

I want to hear about your experiences in the air and your thoughts on this. Are you annoyed by the “no-device” rule or do you not mind disconnecting from the electronic world during takeoff and landing?

Previously on GeekWire: Boeing fills plane with potatoes for WiFi breakthrough

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  • John

    I was told by a member of the USAF who regularly flew on all forms of air transportation (and jumped out of hundreds of planes) that this was nonsense. He speculated it was simply encouraged at takeoff and landing because those are the most dangerous times for pilots/crew and there is a chance they could need full attention of the passengers in the event of an emergency. Do you think everyone is powering off these devices? There has to be a few people who don’t, think they did, or forget Has that interfered with any airplane equipment? heard of a plane going down because of that? Nope.

    • Maggie_R

      The USAF doesn’t really train their folks on civil aircraft engineering since they don’t purchase or operate civil aircraft. So most Air Force para-troopers aren’t really well-versed on the sensitivities of the avionics and controls in commercial jets. Hardly a “horse’s mouth” proclamation.

  • FrankCatalano

    Don’t confuse voice and data transmissions. A Carnegie Mellon study, several years ago, found that voice calls DID have the potential to disrupt cockpit instruments.

    However, there’s no similar evidence for data (text/email) transmissions that I’ve seen.

  • TotalBS

    I have always believed this is total BS and nothing more than a scam to give the airlines a way to charge you yet more fees ($10 for our “special” “safe” “official” in-flight device).

    These are the airlines we’re talking about: what do you think they care about more: you and your safety or more fees?

    • Maggie_R

      You’re absolutely right that the airlines could enable you to use some emitting devices. To do that, they’d have to cough up a few tens of millions of dollars to test each device individually, and the price of every ticket would go up by far more than the measly $10 they charge for the certified in-flight phone. The economics really don’t support it.

  • MomFrequentFlyer

    I’ve always assumed that the real reason to power down was so that our full attention would be on the crew in case of an emergency. The real annoyance to me is that they keep spouting the lies about interfering with controls. Just be honest. And when I’m flying with a 2 year old who is only quiet when Curious George is on an iPad in front of him, its in everyone’s best interest if he is allowed to keep watching so that Mom’s full attention can be given to crewmeber instructions.

    • Maggie_R

      Here’s an explanation of the rule and its reasoning:

      If your toddler is unable to keep his cool long enough for the cabin crew to deliver the pre-flight safety briefing, you very well could be in violation of 14CFR91.11. Consider your part in upholding federal law instead of accusing the FAA of “spouting lies” (unless, of course, you can offer empirical evidence to support your claim).

  • Guest


  • Anonymous Regular

    According to people I know in flight test, yes, common electronic devices can cause problems. They’ve proven that with tests. That said, the vast majority of devices tested didn’t cause any issue. The quote stating that no electronic devices cause issue are probably just because they haven’t tested with all planes and not with the devices that cause issue.

  • John

    I’m not sure the NASA report “proves” a device cannot harm a plane’s operations – the second incident mentioned in the report says “ACN: 950259 … CRJ200 First Officer reports compass system malfunctions during initial climb. When passengers are asked to verify that all electronic devices are turned off the compass system returns to normal.”

  • Taylor Soper

    FWIW, today my flight attendant reminded us five times — yes, five — before takeoff to turn off our electronic devices. On a different flight, we were told that “Airplane Mode” wouldn’t be enough for flying under 10,000 feet (devices needed to be turned completely off).

    • FrankCatalano

      Airlines are fined by the FAA if they fail to adhere to FAA safety directives. And I understand the FAA does “secret-shop” the airlines to make sure they’re making the announcements and following the procedures.

  • Seth

    I’ve never actually heard anyone claim it would cause interference, I always assumed and had heard that it was so you would pay attention to the crew and you surroundings since it’s the most likely time an accident would happen.

    The reason for turning off you phones while in the air also has nothing to do with interference, it’s to prevent your phone from switching towers every half second. That’s not only a drain on your phone, but a burden on the cellular network as well.

  • Maggie_R

    It amazes me how so many journalists, most of whom have never even suffered through any course more difficult than discrete math, suddenly become experts on electromagnetic radiation when decreeing that we engineers haven’t a clue what we’re doing. Electronic devices can, in fact, interfere with one another – PROVEN fact (if you don’t believe the FAA, you can ask the FCC instead). Every airplane type is NOT equally designed and tested – Air Force 1, for example, is endowed with far more self-protection capabilities than its civil equivalent.
    And if the FAA took the approach of allowing stuff on airplanes without testing (because no news is good news, right?), then imagine the cry of the journalists when something does go wrong (remember how the FAA and airlines were somehow responsible for 9/11 because they let the wrong HUMANS on?).
    Like we always say: Safety first! Every device must be considered guilty until tested innocent on an airplane, and the travelling public would have it no other way.

    • davidgeller

      Do you suppose planes are magically immune from all the cellular RF energy emanating around and through airports? Turning off devices inside the cabin doesn’t mean the planes won’t be exposed to all the cellular radio energy outside the plane and in and around the airport. And, so far, there’s no evidence to suggest that they’ll interfere with the proper and safe operation of an aircraft. Wouldn’t we see it at the gate first where there’s potentially many more active devices within close proximity to the aircraft? Modern jetliners sit in and fly through this type of “interference” all the time,

      • FrankCatalano

        No, but planes also aren’t at the terminal during the two most dangerous times of any flight: takeoff and landing. So any risk from RF at that point – and ill-behaved devices, which cell towers generally aren’t – will be coming from within the plane itself. The question then becomes what type of emissions are actually a risk.

        • davidgeller

          Well, considering there’s potentially much more energy at the gate and at low altitude and there hasn’t been any reported interference or failure of flight controls and instruments I’d say the chances of our personal electronic devices causing havoc – which all have to be energy rated and approved by the FCC – is pretty slim. I don’t believe the aircraft controls behave any differently taking off or landing. Not to mention, iPads are approved flight bags on multiple airlines.

          • FrankCatalano

            There have been documented reports of interference. See the Carnegie Mellon study which, as I recall, was summarized in Scientific American. But that was for voice calls, not texts or emails or e-reading devices.

          • Maggie_R

            Airplanes do lots of things during takeoff and landing that are unique from other phases of flight. And the FCC doesn’t stand behind any argument that emitting devices won’t interfere with avionics, they just recognize that emitting devices can interfere with one another. And iPads are approved flight bags under very specific circumstances, and all the mods, apps, and various uses that a passenger might engage on his iPad could very well deviate from the pilot’s limited uses. And finally, iPads aren’t identical to all other emitting devices, so you can’t say that a pilot using an iPad for his duties under approved (and probably tested) circumstances is the same as a passenger using his cell phone to make calls during the takeoff roll.

          • Maggie_R

            Forgot to mention: Your assumption that “there hasn’t been any reported interference or failure of flight controls and instruments” is unsupportable since such interference isn’t really reproducible after the fact (there aren’t messages in the flight deck that tell the pilot “FLIGHT CONTROLS FAILED BECAUSE THE DUDE IN SEAT 23C IS CHATTING WITH HIS MOM”). It also lacks rigor – flight controls and instruments are only 2 of a whole boatload of equipment necessary for safe flight of a commercial jet.

      • Maggie_R

        There’s no magic – the big aluminum tube alleviates a good portion of the problem. But emitting devices inside the tube aren’t similarly attenuated. Also, “no evidence to suggest that they’ll interfere” is NOT the same as “positive evidence to prove they WON’T interfere”, and the latter is the true litmus test for airworthiness and aviation safety.

        • FrankCatalano

          Ah yes. The Faraday cage, in convenient airplane form.

  • Maverick3n1

    I work in the technology industry. I have done everything from Cell Phone repairs, to audio/video installation, to computer building and repairing, to automation systems, advanced level nation wide networking, wireless networking and so on. I also have a moderate knowledge base of aircraft being that I’ve flown an airplane on numerous occasions, and because of a passion of mine in aeronautics, I’ve studied quite a bit about them.

    Lets get some of the facts straight. First, wireless CAN interfere with other wireless devices in the same frequency band. This goes for any form of wireless, whether it be data, voice, or any other method of communication. That said, there are only a few systems in an aircraft that use wireless systems. This would be devices like the aircraft transponder so that traffic control can track the aircraft’s position, the radio so the the tower can communicate with the aircraft, and a few GPS based systems. Outside of that, (depending on what type of aircraft is being flown), aircrafts are either Fly By Wire (which means they have a computer that controls all mechanical pieces of the aircraft, rudder, elevators, ailerons, flaps and so on), or the aircraft is mechanically controlled, meaning that all control surfaces (The “steering wheel” in the cockpit, the floor pads to control rudders and brakes etc) have physical cables connecting from them to the actual piece you are trying to move. When you apply pressure to the right pedal, the pedal pulls a cable that pulls the rudder to the right, causing the plane’s nose to veer right, or it pushes into a hydraulic system that does the same.

    In the case of the fly by wire system, an airplane built properly (which airplanes have very strict guidelines and such) would have shielded cables to communicate that important data over the wires. Any interference, regardless of the frequency would hit the outside shield and ground out to the body of the plane, being made harmless. For the mechanically controlled system, it is just that. Mechanical. Your wireless signal can stop the mechanics from working in that plane just as well as holding your cell phone next to the engine block of your car will stop that engine from spinning.

    There are only 2 real reasons they would still enforce this rule. A. In order to be sure they have as much of their passenger’s attention as possible for the most dangerous portion of the flight, taking off/landing and B. just in case the shielding on that data cable has somehow been damaged, or some new technology comes out that uses some frequency that can somehow get past that shielding, they don’t have to worry about the potential of it causing interference with controls. Fly by wire is digital, meaning the only communications are 1’s and 0’s defining every aspect of what is happening. If somehow a frequency got through to interfere, and the interference caused the computer to see one of the 1’s as a 0, and the 1 was for up, the 0 was for down, you can imagine the bad mojo that could cause.

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