Turning off iPhone critical to pilots citing interference

“Public figures from U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill to actor Alec Baldwin have bristled at what they say are excessive rules restricting use of tablets, smartphones, laptops and other devices during flights,” Alan Levin reports for Bloomberg. “More than a decade of pilot reports and scientific studies tell a different story. Government and airline reporting systems have logged dozens of cases in which passenger electronics were suspected of interfering with navigation, radios and other aviation equipment.”

Levin reports, “The FAA in January appointed an advisory committee from the airline and technology industries to recommend whether or how to broaden electronics use in planes. The agency will consider the committee’s recommendations, which are expected in July, it said in a statement. 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.”

“The FAA prohibits use of electronics while a plane is below 10,000 feet, with the exception of portable recording devices, hearing aids, heart pacemakers and electric shavers,” Levin reports. “Once a flight gets above that altitude, devices can be used in “airplane mode,” which blocks their ability to broadcast radio signals, according to the FAA. There’s an exception for devices that aircraft manufacturers or an airline demonstrates are safe, such as laptops that connect to approved Wi-Fi networks.”

“Four in 10 airline passengers surveyed in December by groups including the CEA said they want to be able to use electronic devices in all phases of flight. Thirty percent of passengers in that same study said they’d accidentally left on a device during a flight,” Levin reports. “McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, has called for lifting restrictions on non-phone devices such as the Kindle. In an interview, she called the existing rules ‘ridiculous.’ ‘I was aware from the research that’s been done that there has never been an incident of a plane having problems because of someone having a device on in the cabin,’ she said.”

Read more in the full article here.

Related articles:
Senate Democrat proposes bill to allow iPad, iPod use from takeoff to landing – March 8, 2013
American Airlines first commercial carrier with FAA approval to use Apple iPads in all phases of flight – September 11, 2012
FAA to study use of iPads, iPhone on airplanes during entire flight – August 28, 2012
F.A.A. taking ‘fresh look’ at passenger use of iPad, devices use during takeoff and landing – March 19, 2012

42 Comments

  1. In recent related news, American Airlines claims that its pilots are now able to use iPads in the cockpit below 10,000′.

    Tell me again why this does not apply to the ‘steerage’ on the rest of the airplane?

    1. “There’s an exception for devices that aircraft manufacturers or an airline demonstrates are safe, such as laptops that connect to approved Wi-Fi networks.”

    2. I have a pilot for a major airline in the family who says it’s all a load of rubbish.. Having iPhone or other electronic device on during takeoff and landing has ZERO impact on the pilots electronics.

    3. The real issue is two fold..
      — If the phone is “on” people tend to use it. Making calls when they should not.

      — During the first 10,000 feet is when the plane is most likely to crash. If things happen, they happen quickly. The flight crew does not need to be yelling at people to quit playing games etc during this time.

      There really is mostly no critical electronics issues in airplane mode. its really about people paying attention to the flight crew. Alec Baldwin is the perfect example. “I am a star. I don’t have to do what you say. ”

      Just a thought.

    4. Because AA has spent tens of thousands of dollars getting every iPad configuration used by pilots EMI tested to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with avionics on every aircraft type in which they are to be used. New iPad comes out? More EMI testing, more thousands of dollars.

    5. iPads that are used by pilots display jeppesen approach plates and airport diagrams so crews no longer have to carry huge log books of these pages all over the airport. They are also much easier to update but don’t transmit or receive in flight. You can’t use yours because you are supposed to pay attention to the crew during critical phases of flight so people don’t get killed because you didn’t pay attention because you had a high score going on angry birds.

  2. As long as the device is in “Airplane-mode,” in which all antennae are switched off, there should never be any issue, regardless of altitude.

    I find it ridiculous that so many people complain about this though. Epitomizes the “making a mountain out of mole-hill” idiom.

    1. It’s not always a mountain. Mole hills can be pretty annoying, too. I think intelligent people get upset because of the lack of common sense in the rules, or perhaps in the inconsistent way the rules get applied.

      For instance, why is it you can use your electronics while taxing to the gate but not when leaving the gate?

      Why can you begin using electronics above 10,000 feet (just a couple of minutes into the flight) but most crews want them turned off as soon as descent begins (a half hour from touch down)?

      Beyond that, the explanations given seem contradictory to the experiences of anyone who flies frequently: Electronics get left on all the time on accident, or that sneaky person against the window keeps talking on their phone throughout ascent/descent, or (I suspect most common) people use Airplane Mode when they are told to turn the device off. And yet there has never been a documented flight incident related to consumer electronics interfering with electronic navigation gear.

      1. —For instance, why is it you can use your electronics while taxing to the gate but not when leaving the gate?—

        Because while taxiing to the gate the aircraft has ceased all critical phases of flight, in contrast to leaving the gate when the priority is preparing the cabin for critical phases of flight.

        —Why can you begin using electronics above 10,000 feet (just a couple of minutes into the flight) but most crews want them turned off as soon as descent begins (a half hour from touch down)?—

        Because once again the emphasis is on preparing the cabin for a critical phase of flight. The longer you have to prepare, the easier it is to execute.

  3. Pilots are using iPads to hold their once huge notebooks of airplane and navigation manuals.

    I have no problem putting electronics away during takeoff and landing. It’s less about electronic interference, more about paying attention to what’s going on during the most dangerous times of a flight. Even people who fly a lot (me) ought not have earbuds in during these times so we can hear what the heck is going on.

    1. I fly a great deal as well. I’m also aware that the pre-flight and landing instructions are PR stunts designed to make passengers think any “accident” is survivable, and have nothing to do with actual safety issues (other than remaining seated during takeoff/landing).

      This practice is a hold over from early flight history when the average passenger had not flown before, and was apprehensive about it.

      The fact is that all aircraft have zero structurally integrity when they hit the ground in anything not considered a ” planned landing”.

      If RF from consumer electronics are interfering with aircraft controls, then the manufacturers might try using shielded wire. They don’t want to because shielded wire adds weight (there are miles of wire on a modern aircraft) and add construction expense.

      If consumer electronics were really an issue, airlines would not be removing inflight movie systems (average 4,000 lbs) and installing internal wi-fi systems to provide inflight entertainment to passenger owned and airline provided devices.

      1. Well, I wouldn’t say they have ‘zero’ structural integrity – they do have the ability to take a bit of a hit, depending on circumstances….
        ‘Any landing you walk away from is good, and if you can use the plane again, thats even better.’

      2. “The fact is that all aircraft have zero structurally integrity when they hit the ground in anything not considered a planned landing”.

        What!!!? There are many crash-landings that have been successful, e.g. the Gimli Glider, the Hudson landing.

      3. Well, I stand by my comment. The last thing I want on planes is everyone tuned out when instructions are being announced on the intercom. Or to jump over some idiot with a laptop on his lap during an evacuation. Or to be listening to someone else’s mobile phone conversation during a flight.

        While I’m not sure the reasons airlines are keeping electronics turned off during certain parts of flight are legit, I’m glad they are.

          1. True enough. But, one doesn’t need earbuds to read analog books, right?

            Trust me, I use lots of electronics on airplanes and I fly a lot. I just don’t think it’s a big deal to let this stuff get sorted out so that flight attendants can do their jobs which many think are mundane until the day one has to land in the Hudson River and quickly evacuate.

            1. I don’t disagree. For over 20 years I flew multiple flights each week. Those 90 seconds that you have to evacuate a plane would likely be plenty if everyone were to remain calm and knew where the closest exits were.

              I was just searching the NTSB’s database of aviation accidents. There’s no clear-cut way to search for this sort of issue. The closest I could come up with was to search for “personal electronic” (short for personal electronic devices) which found only five investigations (planes with at least two engines) that even mentioned those, at least one of which was the sort of catch-all summary where the crew had received training on which PEDs were allowed. I couldn’t find any investigation that found PEDs to be the cause or even the suspected cause. There was a Martinair flight back in the late 90s that experienced all manner of weirdness from Amsterdam to the US, and the crew asked all passengers to turn off all PEDs — but that didn’t resolve their issues. Another search for EMI found a whole lot of mentions, but my cursory examination didn’t suggest that was a selective enough search term.

  4. Soon airlines will argue for confiscating phones and tablets before boarding to prevent risk to passengers and crews. Designing planes with adequate shielding may be “prohibitive” owing the “extra weight” and “escalating fuel costs”. Have a nice flight.

  5. The issue isn’t black & white. How much interference to comm & nav electronics in the cockpit are necessary before they lead to errors? I don’t particularly want to be on the plane that lands on the wrong runway or fails to move to the correct approach path due to miscommunication between pilot & tower.

    1. Mythbusters tested this very issue and found only one instrument critical to flight impacted by wi-fi or cellular freqs. Shielding the instrument eliminated the problem.

      1. “one instrument critical to flight”

        by that standard, one can disable over half of an airliner’s electronics and hope like hell that the pilots have strong arms and remember their early days flying seat-of-the pants.

        Mythbusters is great entertainment, but hardly comprehensive enough to guarantee aviation safety. If I remember correctly, the FAA requires airplane makers to prove the chance of a catastrophic failure to be less than 1 in 1,000,000,000.

  6. As far as I am concerned any personal device, ie phone, tablet, iPod, etc. that could interfere with a plane’s electronics, There is something wrong with the Plane’s electronics, they should be designed to be impervious to the standard everyday device, period!

    1. They are designed to survive a lightening strike, and pass through broadcast RF of much higher power (radio, radar, TV and their own RF signals) than given off by consumer electronics, hundreds of times per flight.

    2. Take a moment to consider that you are sitting in an aluminum tube 35000 feet off the ground going almost the speed of sound. Unless you’re a fighter pilot or astronaut you aren’t ever going to put yourself further outside your natural environment.

      There are hundreds of sensitive systems on an aircraft to facilitate what they do, and without having a reasonably detailed understanding of what those systems are and just how important they are you can’t really sit and declare that there is something wrong with them.

  7. I’m surprised that electric shavers aren’t listed as dangerous. At the end of a long flight, their use in cattle class could result in an on-board brawl.

  8. This is all ridiculous. We’re climbing into aluminum tubes which are being thrust into the air by powerful engines which burn highly flammable fuel. I don’t think it’s too much to turn off your electronic device for 5 min just to be safe.

    A lot of whining about nothing.

  9. All items are also to be stowed during take-off and landing. This is partly to reduce the chance of injury during a rough take-off, landing or other incident in that critical period. If it is stowed, it might as well be turned off. If it has to be turned off, it is more likely to be stowed. This would apply more to larger items (iPads, laptops, (Samsung phablets), etc.).

    1. See my comment above about Tom Clancy novels. (Yes, it’s not solely a Tom Clancy issue but if I were to refer to tomes written by Dr. Oh-Hyun Kwon you wouldn’t care ;-))

  10. I always thought that if there was a credible safety risk, mobile devices would be confiscated before boarding. People can’t be trusted to turn them off or switch to flight mode.

  11. The sheer amount of clueless pondering in this thread is staggering. Of all the comments above me only a couple appear to have even a basic level of knowledge about aviation technical or legal systems.

    But hey, go on and educate me..

    1. I wonder how many of the commenters understand the statistics involved in factoring the number of airline incidents tied to the use of personal electronic devices against the backdrop of some 100K commercial flights each day around the world.

  12. I find it scary how passengers and congresswomen seem to think they know more than the scientists and engineers who study these things. People today have an attitude that they know better than the experts. Just do what your told when the lives of others are at stake. Here are some reasons why the rules are set the way they are for mobile divices in airplane travel. There is a critical phase of flight from startup to 10000 feet above sea level, during which, attention and focus must be maintained by your flight crew or bad things will happen. Phones are required off when the door closes for a reason. Most procedures and radio calls by the pilots happen during this time. Pilots are talking to gate/ramp control, starting engines, receiving route clearance updates, talking to ground control for taxi clearance, updating and rebriefing routes/altitudes in the navigation computers and other things. This is a VERY important time where the pilots must not lose focus. Cell phones can actually be heard through the pilots headsets on some planes as data is sent and received from your phone from the passengers in the first few rows. If you have computer speakers at home, send an email from your phone while holding the phone next to the speaker system and you can hear this “digital” sound. Also, cabin announcements must be the focus during pushback. Even though you may be a seasoned traveler, there are morons and idiots around you who need to pay attention so they don’t block exits if an emergency evacuation is ordered by the captain and carried out by the flight attendants. If these morons and idiots see the seasoned travelers using their divices during this time, they will think they can do the same and will not hear the safety instructions, resulting in opening an over wing door with fire on that side or panicking during egress and leaving an emergency exit door in front of the exit. During taxi in there is much less going on but flight crews still receive critical taxi clearances to cross active runways so I really don’t like the use of phones until at the gate during arrival, but that’s just my opinion. Most women can’t survive unless they have a phone on their ear and they ate talking as loud as possible in front of as many people as possible, somehow raising up their social status, in their feeble minds. As far as magnetic/EMF interference with navigation equipment is concerned, it has been scientifically proven that EMF from mobile divices can affect navigation azimuth signals. This depends upon the magnetic insulation provided by the wires of the navigation system in the plane and most modern large airline planes have very good magnetic insulation in the wires coatings/sleeves. But don’t bet your life and the lives of everyone on board because you think you know this. Wires on planes get old and lose their properties before they can get replaced. Don’t be the first person to kill hundreds because you think you know better. Navigation needles have been shown to deviate to full scale difflection without proper insulation. This is SERIOUS. we fly approaches where you are right next to other planes while in the clouds. These approaches are called PRM ILS approaches (Simultaneous Close Parallel ILS Approaches), where we are right next to very large planes and any deviation requires a breakout by the non offending aircraft. Any deviation to the navigation needle could get us closer to one another resulting in loss of control, especially near the ground where wing tip vortices could put a smaller aircraft out of control very quickly. Bottom line here is, follow instructions and let the scientists and engineers decide who dies and who lives. You aren’t qualified to make that decision for the 200 people who are on board with you. If you don’t follow the rules as currently written, expect to be treated like the asshole, moron, dumb ass that you are! Fly safe.

  13. The issue is not now nor ever has been about unintentional interference from these devices. The issue is about control – or how these devices can be used to actually control the aircraft. See the recent report on it here:

    http://blogs.computerworld.com/cybercrime-and-hacking/22036/hacker-uses-android-remotely-attack-and-hijack-airplane

    The fact is, this capability, to hack into the aircraft and actually control basic functions, has existed ever since planes became largely automated (around the late80s early 90s). The reason why we started seeing these regs pop up suddenly in the early 2000s is because that’s when carrying around a device in your pocket that had the capability to do it became a reality. Before that it took specialized equipment & software. Now somebody could make an app for a free (2yr contract) phone & distribute it far & wide.

    Part of why the airlines don’t make even more bloody noise over this issue is that it would call attention to it. From their point of view, they need no more reasons to lose customers to Amtrak.

    1. No. No no no no no.

      All of what you just wrote is completely false. Have you been hanging out on conspiracy websites? I’d love to know who is spreading such misleading and patently false information.

      That guy saying he could control an aircraft was being disingenuous to say the least. He can assume control of a simulated aircraft system but is not even close to what he claimed. Still, got him some press.

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.