Disruptions: The Real Hazards of E-Devices on Planes
DECEMBER 30, 2012
A pilot uses the FlySmart with Airbus app on an Apple iPad.
The F.A.A. has no proof that electronic devices can harm a plane’s
avionics, but it still perpetuates such claims.
In September, a passenger was arrested in El Paso after refusing to turn off his cellphone as the plane was landing. In October, a man in Chicago was arrested because he used his iPad during takeoff. In November, half a dozen police cars raced across the tarmac at La Guardia Airport in New York, surrounding a plane as if there were a terrorist on board. They arrested a 30-year-old man who had also refused to turn off his phone while on the runway.
Who is to blame in these episodes? You can’t solely pin it on the passengers. Some of the responsibility falls on the Federal Aviation Administration, for continuing to uphold a rule that is based on the unproven idea that a phone or tablet can interfere with the operation of a plane.
These conflicts have been going on for several years. In 2010, a 68-year-old man punched a teenager because he didn’t turn off his phone. Lt. Kent Lipple of the Boise Police Department in Idaho, who arrested the puncher, said the man “felt he was protecting the entire plane and its occupants.” And let’s not forget Alec Baldwin, who was kicked off an American Airlines plane in 2011 for playing Words With Friends online while parked at the gate.
Dealing with the F.A.A. on this topic is like arguing with a stubborn teenager. The agency has no proof that electronic devices can harm a plane’s avionics, but it still perpetuates such claims, spreading irrational fear among millions of fliers.
A year ago, when I first asked Les Dorr, a spokesman for the F.A.A., why the rule existed, he said the agency was being cautious because there was no proof that device use was completely safe. He also said it was because passengers needed to pay attention during takeoff.
When I asked why I can read a printed book but not a digital one, the agency changed its reasoning. I was told by another F.A.A. representative that it was because an iPad or Kindle could put out enough electromagnetic emissions to disrupt the flight. Yet a few weeks later, the F.A.A. proudly announced that pilots could now use iPads in the cockpit instead of paper flight manuals.
The F.A.A. then told me that “two iPads are very different than 200.” But experts at EMT Labs, an independent testing facility in Mountain View, Calif., say there is no difference in radio output between two iPads and 200. “Electromagnetic energy doesn’t add up like that,” said Kevin Bothmann, the EMT Labs testing manager.
It’s not a matter of a flying device hitting another passenger, either. Kindles weigh less than six ounces; Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs weighs 2.1 pounds in hardcover. I’d rather be hit in the head by an iPad Mini than a 650-page book.
In October, after months of pressure from the public and the news media, the F.A.A. finally said it would begin a review of its policies on electronic devices in all phases of flight, including takeoff and landing. But the agency does not have a set time frame for announcing its findings.
An F.A.A. spokeswoman told me last week that the agency was preparing to move to the next phase of its work in this area, and would appoint members to a rule-making committee that will begin meeting in January.
The F.A.A. should check out an annual report issued by NASA that compiles cases involving electronic devices on planes. None of those episodes have produced scientific evidence that a device can harm a plane’s operation. Reports of such interference have been purely speculation by pilots about the cause of a problem.
Other government agencies and elected officials are finally getting involved.
This December, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, sent a letter to the F.A.A. telling the agency that it had a responsibility to “enable greater use of tablets, e-readers and other portable devices” during flights, as they empower people and allow “both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness.”
A week later, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, also sent a letter to the F.A.A. noting that the public was “growing increasingly skeptical of prohibitions” on devices on airplanes. She warned that she was “prepared to pursue legislative solutions should progress be made too slowly.”
If progress is slow, there will eventually be an episode on a plane in which someone is seriously harmed as a result of a device being on during takeoff. But it won’t be because the device is interfering with the plane’s systems. Instead, it will be because one passenger harms another, believing they are protecting the plane from a Kindle, which produces fewer electromagnetic emissions than a calculator.