Salon's "Ask the Pilot" column has a nicely nuanced take on why airlines have you shut off and stow electronic devices during takeoff and landing. In a way, this reminds me of the way doctors tell pregnant women to not drink any alcohol at all, when what they really mean is, "It's not totally clear where the line is between a safe amount and a not safe amount."

48 Responses to “But I don't want to shut off my e-reader”

  1. Pat David says:

    I’ve always been of the opinion that if there remains a doubt as to the level of possible interference, then why take _any_ chance at all?

    ie: is any phone conversation worth the *possibility* of dying in a fiery ball of screaming death?

    • Jonathan Badger says:

      Using that logic, you shouldn’t fly at all, or travel by car, bus, whatever. There is always some possibility that you will die from doing it.

      I remember that when I was an undergraduate I had to take an economics course as a requirement (even though I was a bacteriology major) and the professor had an interesting point — that it is nonsense to say that human life has an infinite value because we all risk our *own* lives all the time for the sake of convenience (let alone the lives of others!), and presumably we could calculate exactly how much the convenience  of flying, driving etc. is worth to us, and then based on the risk factors, use this to calculate how much our lives are worth to us.

      • Pat David says:

        I understand that there is inherent risks with most actions, but my comment is about *adding* to the possibility with the trade-off of having a cell phone conversation.

        I have already accepted the risk of a plane crash when I boarded the plane.  I am of the opinion that adding anything extra to that risk is not worth the reward (making a phone call while on board).

  2. Mark Stewart says:

    FTA: “Planes are large and complicated; minor, fleeting malfunctions of this or that component aren’t uncommon, and their causes are often impossible to determine.”

    So, you can figure out the physics to get a 178 ton plane off the ground, fly it across the ocean using only computers, but you can’t figure out why the headphone jacks never work right? Or why the landing gear fell off? Come on – EVERYTHING can be determined with enough effort and time.

  3. Tony Alonzo says:

    I was actually told by a flight attendant that it has little to do with interference and more to do with not having everyone occupied with electronics in case of an emergency. She said the majority of complications happen during takeoff and landing, and not having people fumble around electronics is important if something does happen. If the devices really were at risk for causing a plane malfunction, they would have you check them at the gate. 

    • Culturedropout says:

      Yeah – I’d sure hate to miss the full experience of a fiery death because I was watching Doctor Horrible on my iPad…

    •  She said the majority of complications happen during takeoff and landing

      Speaking as someone who researches airline crash stats as a way of soothing personal anxiety, this is true. It is also why you should: 

      1) Consider not wearing high heels or clumsy sandals or open-toed anything on a plane. You want shoes that will get you to an exit and away from a plane without stumbling or slicing a toe open. 
      2) Plan ahead to resist the urge to grab your carry ons if you do need to exit a plane in an emergency situation. Leave the bag, leave the hat, leave the purse. You’ll slow yourself down, and slow down other people around you. Assume your laptop will go down with the ship. 

      • I always wondered about that explanation. I mean, I accept that it’s true, but then why wouldn’t they ask you to close all your books and magazines, too? I can be just as absorbed in a physical book as I am in an e-book.

    • Guest says:

      maybe it’s a test to see who will actually defer to the one in charge of the airplane.

      Go ahead, disagree with the captain. I dare you. 

  4. IMO, the comparison to fetal alcohol syndrome is imperfect. Rather than restate the entire case, here is a link:

    http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/02/23/fetal-alcohol-syndrome-and-the-social-control-of-mothers/

    Here is a money-quote for the tl;dr folks:

    These campaigns all target women and explain to them that they should not drink any alcohol at all if they are trying to conceive, during pregnancy, during the period in which they are breastfeeding and, in some cases, if they are not trying to conceive but are using only somewhat effective birth control.

    So, the strategy to reduce FAS is reduced to the targeting of women’s behavior.
    But “women” do not cause FAS.  Neither does alcohol.  This strategy replaces addressing all of the other problems that correlate with the appearance of FAS–poverty, stress, and other kinds of social deprivation–in favor of policing women.  FAS, in fact, is partly the result of individual behavior, partly the result of social inequality, and partly genetic, but our entire eradication strategy focuses on individual behavior.  It places the blame and responsibility solely on women.

    And, since women’s choices are not highly correlated with the appearance of FAS, the strategy fails.  Very few women actually drink at the levels correlated with FAS.  If we did not have a no-drinking-during-pregnancy campaign and pregnant women continued drinking at the rates at which they drank before being pregnant, we would not see a massive rise in FAS.  Only the heaviest drinking women put their fetus at risk and they, unfortunately, are the least likely to respond to the no-drinking campaign (largely due to addiction).

  5. @Tony Alonzo: This argument also fails any rational test. If it was true, they would also prohibit other distracting, non-electric items, like books, travel games, sudoku, and playing cards. And let’s not forget sleeping. I typically pass out as soon as the plane begins taxiing. I guarantee you that me rousing from slumber is far more of a hindrance to an evacuation than somebody’s Kindle.

    • Finnagain says:

      We’d probably just leave you sleeping there.

    • Tony Alonzo says:

      I said the same thing. She said that electronics allow you to interact, call, email, IM, and its much more difficult to get people disconnected from communication and interaction than it is to get them to drop a paperback. I see your point, and I’m not saying that what the airlines do makes any sense at all, I am merely providing an explanation as it was explained to me.

  6. Sean Speer says:

    My father is an aeronautical engineer who worked for the Air Force on experimental aircraft for 20 years, and then for Boeing on commercial and military aircraft for a decade. He has no idea why there is a prohibition on electronics during take off and landing. In his opinion, “It’s all hogwash.”

  7. The, “but any amount of interference could be serious,” argument also doesn’t stand up to reason. Everybody here who has forgotten to turn off their cell phone or other electronic device and not realized until they were in the air, raise your hand. See all those hands?

    The FAA does not fuck around when it comes to airline safety. If things actually matter, there is policy after policy to ensure that they don’t slip through the cracks. Look at a pilot’s log book. Look at an airline mechanic’s log book. Look at the pre-flight checklist for an airplane. If interference from electronic devices actually mattered, they would scan the airplane with a signal detector before takeoff. They don’t. Ergo, it doesn’t actually matter.

    EDIT: I didn’t realize that the linked article had a click-through. I see that the author addresses this point.

  8. Guest says:

    I think the basic theory is this. 200 wireless devices probably have zero effect on current aerospace electronics.

    Probably.

    So who wields occams razor as the rubber hits the road? The paying passenger, or the owner, pilot, and insurers of the airplane?

    Fuck, you lot are an entitled bunch.  To decide your momentary preference is more important than the judgement of the people you have contracted with to safely transport you is the height of self-centeredness.

    You agreed to the rules, you could have shopped around until you find an airline which allows you to use those things at that time. You didn’t or couldn’t. There is a reason, and while you might disagree with it, it is only yours to question BEFORE you get on board, BEFORE you agree to behave within certain parameters which are established to keep you and others safe.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      To decide your momentary preference is more important than the judgement of the people you have contracted with to safely transport you is the height of self-centeredness…You agreed to the rules, you could have shopped around until you find an airline which allows you to use those things at that time.

      How do you apply that principle to an airline that decides to keep you safe by harassing passengers who ‘appear Muslim’?

      • Guest says:

        I’m not sure I see the analogy to my point. Being muslim doesn’t interfere with the airplane itself, and wifi has nothing to do with such wetware issues as racist bigotry.

        • Antinous / Moderator says:

          Yet history has shown us that airline experts disagree. You’ve suggested that we defer to their opinions on safety. Why would we do it on (pseudo)science but not on (pseudo)social science?

    • William says:

      Geez, relax. Even the pilot in that editorial admits that he’s never seen interference, and that the only known incident involving a phone, ever, was one time when a phone in the baggage compartment had a ring tone that evidently sounded like an alarm (he doesn’t give details).

      I am just restating the point of the article because you are perpetuating a lie when you say “There is a reason”.

      • Guest says:

        Aas smart as you are,and as correct as you are,  you haven’t managed to figure out that as you board the airplane you lose the right to be such a wanker about what is absurd to you, and how you choose to protest it.

        Being a douche on a plane is wanking.

    • William says:

      …But to the larger point: When there are absurd rules, societies work around them. People know not to follow them. It is sometimes easier for millions of people to disobey a rule than to find the guy with the authority to change the rule (and hope he or she feels like doing so).

      The waitress who harassed Baldwin (while ignoring the non-celebrity passengers) was not playing by the society’s rules, she was playing by the rules which society knows to ignore.

  9. sota767 says:

    Bottle of shampoo: TSA considers a threat but can’t hurt plane.
    Cellphone: TSA is fine with and could cause plane to crash.

    Makes perfect sense.

  10. gordonjcp says:

    If you listen to the approach frequencies on a scanner near any large airport, you will quite often hear the distinctive “biddybip biddybip biddybip” of the GSM cell association – from switched-on phones right up there in the cockpit.

    A good ten years ago now, however, I got a grumpy letter from Orange pointing out that my IMEI had been spotted at four mutually-invisible cell sites and presumably I’d been flying over a few thousand feet up.  I had indeed been in the area in a motor-glider.  Unfortunately since the cell sites weren’t expecting to see the same phone from all the locations, the site controllers promptly crashed, taking out all the phone coverage in that area for a couple of hours.  Oops.

    • fersheezytaco says:

      Yep, I think its a combination of three things. The carriers really do’nt like the tower hopping that occurs at high speeds,  it messes with their towers.  Also, we take for granted that American electronics are cleared by the FCC and do not NOT put out interference outside the approved radio bands.  It would be too confusing or silly to require customers or attendants to differentiate between foreign and american approved devices or what signal bands they can and cannot transmit, so they ban all electronics.  99.9% of electronics do not cause excessive interference but the one that does is obviously a problem.  Third, I think airlines realized cellphone conversations on planes would be more of a nuisance than a benefit, and I personally respect that.  However, I do turn on my cell phone before touchdown, and I never shut anything completely off. I will if I buy it on the streets of China though.  

  11. traalfaz says:

    The best way to ensure that nobody is carrying any explosives is to have everyone fly naked.  This is pretty much guaranteed to increase safety.  Allowing people to wear arbitrary clothing on a flight is certainly adding to the possibility of a bad outcome during a flight.
    I agree that cell phones are a risk and I think they should be put into airplane mode (radios off) but airplane mode should be sufficient for any device.  There’s no reason to have me shut off my ereader.  As for the worry about it becoming a projectile, I’ve never been asked to put it away, just to turn it off.

  12. jedrekburak says:

    To all the people saying that a mobile phone is ok because if it was dangerous it would be confiscated/mobiles would be used as terrorist devices etc. – one mobile left on is significantly different from 250 mobiles connecting with the nearest mast when all the passengers want to call their families that they’re about to land. Note that this is almost undoubtedly when most phone calls would happen – by chance the most sensitive part of the flight when you really don’t want anything to go wrong.

  13. donovan acree says:

    This is all FUD. No aircraft has ever experienced a malfunction due to cell phone use. Or, to put it another way, you and everyone you know will win the lottery before a plane is put in distress by the use of a cell phone. These rules came to be when the airlines where pushing their in flight phone service. This is about money and has nothing at all to do with safety.

    • The linked article specifically sites two cases where cell phone use has been connected to aircraft malfunction. 

      • Mark Stewart says:

        That’s pretty scary. 2 cases connected aircraft malfuntion? In the past 15 years since cellphones achieved mainstream adoption? Over nearly 50,000 flights per day? And in one of those cases the official report never listed cellphone use as a primary cause?

        I’m not against banning their use and forcing passengers to comply – it’s the right of any company to define their terms of service.

        Just against making something with weak evidence regarded as fact. Religion has taken that crown, and we all know how well that’s worked out for air travel.

        Hopefully some evidence will back this ban up soon – so we can all get back to the real issue at hand with airlines (according to every stand-up comic I’ve ever seen) – the food. What’s up with that?

      • donovan acree says:

        @boingboing-7160c7db52df96e5fe196a6c9ce73f83:disqus I saw those two references.
        Crossair Flight 498 – An examination of pilot Pavel Gruzin’s body revealed traces of the tranquilizer Phenazepam his muscle tissue. Examiners also found an open packet of the Russian-made drug in baggage belonging to Gruzin. What do you think is the likely cause of the crash? Drugged pilot or cell phone?

        Concerning the “regional jet was forced to make an emergency landing after a fire alarm was triggered by a ringing phone in the luggage compartment.”
        I was unable to locate any information about this claim other that it is repeated quite often without mentioning the flight number, carrier, the conditions involved or anything that could be used to verify the story. I suspect FUD. Also, even if true, this is not related to avionics but rather a false alarm. The flight was not in any actual danger.
        Before we go banning something, lets make sure we are doing so based on facts and evidence rather than hearsay.

  14. Rasmaestro says:

    Brian Dunning does a good job here: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4014

    And one more perspective; a historical one. A decade or two ago mobile telephony on airplanes was not possible except through the airplane’s own communication system or satellite telephone systems. The airlines charged very good money for that.
    Naturally, the airlines and communication suppliers at that time had no interest in welcoming personal telephony on board. The same thing goes for hospitals – I remember when mobile phones were completely banned and I was forced to use the expensive services at my local hospital. The rules now may be a spill-over from that practice…sometimes such established “truths” are stubborn beasts, especially if the official reason for their existence is safety – even internally.

    While technology has moved on, there are still suppliers for this kind of service. Also, there are new suppliers of entertainment systems and services – now integrated in many seats and such. These modern suppliers offer a means of differentiation for an airline service…and often a smartphone without a connection is just not all that fun. I think there is also an underlying economic motive in “complicating” use of personal devices. You retain control of the media channel on board, retain unique airline offerings, retain a direct way of informing the passengers, and retain some level of ROI in a technological world moving faster than the aircraft itself.

  15. elk says:

    There is no technical mystery to unravel here IMO…aren’t we just helping flight staff do their jobs (i.e. keeping people somewhat prepared for a worst-case crash scenario)? The cost for the passenger? A wee bit of “inconvenience” if you can even call it that.

    Why not make it easy for these people to do their jobs? Smart flyers pack for a friction-less flight experience. The same way you’d leave a big honkin’ metal belt at home to best your chances at flowing thru security, you pack a f’n magazine for take-offs. “But my rights as a citizen and paying customer are being violated!” Those people can shut their cake holes and dig just deep enough to wait the ten minutes it takes to get to altitude.

  16. Jim Saul says:

    The user-tracking Carrier IQ and similar applications are advertised as functioning constantly, updating user location to remote monitors by pinging towers even when cell phones are “off” or in “airplane mode.”

    So which priority is higher for Reichland Security? Warrentless tracking, or minimizing electronic interference on airplanes?

  17. flickerKuu says:

    This is the biggest pile of crap I’ve seen in a while. If you can’t build a plane that won’t drop out of the sky because my MP3 player is on maybe you shouldn’t build planes. I’ve had cell phones on and working before by accident on flights across the country. I’m fine. We ALL KNOW the reason you can’t use a phone is because they want to charge you $5 a minute for their crappy in flight phones. Thats IT.   The argument someone will have their Mp3 player on 11 and not hear the fact they are crashing is just plain stupid. That’s fine. If someone wants to boogie to the beat while oxygen masks are dropping and people are screaming for the exits while fire erupts around them- so be it. Let the guy die. At least he died happy.  I happen to know pilots hang out in the cockpit with Ipads and laptops on ALL THE TIME. Funny how rules don’t apply to them.  I would be more worried about what the pilots did before the flight or the night before effecting  my plane down, rather than  a little Words with Friends game.  There was recent talk about ending all this electronic embargo, and then of course the shoe bomber and underwear bomber happened. Now they are worried about terrorists texting eachother to coordinate an attack in flight. OK, so of course a ban on electronics will stop terrorists. There’s no way they will spurn the bane of the stewardess to take over a plane now.  This is all dumb. I’m with Baldwin on this one. That Salon article is junk.

  18. Repurposed says:

    My brother in law (a commercial pilot) says that it’s threefold.

    1.) The mentioned reason of interference with avionics.
    2.) It pisses off the ground crew (who still internally debate whether it interferes with their communications gear).
    3.) As a courtesy to the cabin crew who don’t like dealing with people distracted by phone calls (when giving out safety instructions or any other sort of directions).

    It’s just easiest to say ‘because the plane will crash’ since the other two reasons don’t instill enough fear to stop people from doing it.

  19. Antinous / Moderator says:

    Decades ago, cell phones were forbidden in the hospital because they would ‘interfere with the electronics’ of some equipment.  Apparently, there really was an issue.  In about 1985.  Which was corrected shortly.  As of 2000, when I last worked in the hospital, they were still banning cell phones in patient care areas even though every equipment manufacturer swore up and down that it wasn’t a problem.

  20. bosconet says:

    Sorry but the idea that you need to turn off electronics completely falls apart with the FAA approving iPads for use in the cockpit of American Airlines at any time, including take off and landings. http://news.cnet.com/8301-13772_3-57342524-52/faa-gives-nod-to-ipads-in-cockpits-for-american-airlines/

  21. penguinchris says:

    Since no one’s commented on the title yet – being asked to turn off your e-reader is the worst.

    Chances are, you were engrossed in your book while waiting forever to board the plane, and while you’re waiting forever for everyone else to find their seat you got engrossed in it again.

    You didn’t bring a paper book or a magazine because you have an e-reader, and anyway you’re engrossed in your e-book and don’t want to read anything else.

    And then, an e-reader is about the most benign electronic device possible. It doesn’t even draw any power except when the page turns (granted the Kindles and possibly others have 3G, but you can turn it off – and I’ll grant that the flight attendants shouldn’t have to know that my Sony e-reader doesn’t have any radios in it while the guy next to me’s Kindle does).

    For anything else – including crosswords or sudoku or other electronics – I just sit patiently not doing anything until we’re in the air. But if I’m reading – which will always be on my e-reader these days – I lose patience and all I want to do is break the rules.

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