Report: Kindle produces nearly no electrical interference. FAA: "LALALALALA"

Nick Bilton put the FAA's claims regarding Kindles and airline avionics to the test. The result? They emit less EM interference than planes are required by law to withstand.

The F.A.A. requires that before a plane can be approved as safe, it must be able to withstand up to 100 volts per meter of electrical interference. When EMT Labs put an Amazon Kindle through a number of tests, the company consistently found that this e-reader emitted less than 30 microvolts per meter when in use. That’s only 0.00003 of a volt. “The power coming off a Kindle is completely minuscule and can’t do anything to interfere with a plane,” said Jay Gandhi, chief executive of EMT Labs, after going over the results of the test. “It’s so low that it just isn’t sending out any real interference.”

We always knew that if gadgets were really a threat to avionics, we would not be allowed to bring them into the cabin at all. We know that many travelers keep on using them anyway, on the sly. Thanks to Bilton, the bare lie shines through a little brighter. But it leaves the question: why do these institutions insist on clinging to this particular line of security nonsense?

It's as it the standards in use were defined by some bureaucratic committee in the mists of history, rather than any reasonable application of the science involved.

I always suspected that these rules are a vestigial tail of policies contrived to protect the old racket of in-air phone calls and paid in-flight entertainment. Though the market for that stuff is dead, the rules lumber on.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to have my tinfoil hat steamed.

Disruptions: Norelco on Takeoff? Fine. Kindle? No. [NYT Bits]


  1. A Kindle is still hard.  They want everything hard stowed for takeoff and landing to avoid the chance of it becoming a projectile if something goes wrong.  You can use the Kindle in-flight.

    There’s also the little detail of the communications equipment on a Kindle that might not be turned off.

      1. I haven’t flow in quite some time, but don’t they still tell you to securely stow all your stuff during take-off and landing?

        1. Yes, technically you are supposed to stow everything. And am I crazy or is it not obvious that the reason they don’t want any of that stuff in your lap, and your tray stowed and seat back up, is because if there IS an emergency it might be followed by an emergency evacuation? Put all your stuff on the tray table, now have a hundred or more people do the same. NOW GET OUT OF THE EMERGENCY EXITS! THE PLANES ON FIRE! YOU’VE GOT SECONDS BEFORE THE THICK BLACK TOXIC SMOKE STARTS MAKING ESCAPE IMPOSSIBLE! Not very easy with all that crap to stumble over. Seems pretty simple to me, and not a huge inconvenience. And as for everyone using their cell phone at 10,000+ feet while traveling at 500+mph? It’s not the FAA you are pissing off, it’s the FCC and every cell tower that you are all jumping to and from in seconds. They didn’t design the cellular phone system for that. It works, as has been proven, but hand off between towers isn’t just magic. I’m actually impressed by the fact that the cell towers in and around the airport handle literally hundreds of people all turning on their phones at the same second they reach the gate, every minute of the day. And as for all the people who are griping about “oh those damn bureaucrats and their refusal to change making my life a living hell woe is me…” I’m OK with a slow change when it involves me stuffed into a tube with hundreds of others, doing what an airplane does, and not having some unintended consequences. 

          1. It’s not a bad idea to have the floor clear and the tray tables up. And that is indeed part of the rules.

            But as for smallish items in your hands or lap? Anything goes.  Books. Phones. Kindles. Ipads. Closed laptops (usually). Boiling hot cups of coffee. It’s all good.

            As long as the electronics are switched off. Which magically makes them safe I guess.

            In other words: the “stow everything for safety” argument really doesn’t in any way justify the rules about powered on electronics.

            As for cell towers: 

            1. This is what “airplane mode” is supposed to be for –  and many devices don’t even have cellular radios in the first place. But of course, the rule is not “all devices [with cellular radios] must be switched to airplane mode” it is “all devices must be switched off”…

            2. At cruising altitude, ground cell stations are typically far out of range anyway (I don’t recall exactly, but I think the cutoff is not even 10,000 feet, never mind 30k-40k.). 
            3. For the takeoff/landing transition phase where the ground might still be in range, or clear days where the ceiling is higher, it should not be difficult to design cell phones and base stations to throttle connection attempts or otherwise compensate for phones that are travelling too rapidly, have extremely weak signals, or are jumping between stations too quickly. I’d hardly be surprised if those precautions are already in place.

            Being cautious is one thing, but the argument only goes so far when no actual rational justification for the policy presents itself. We might as well have rules about gremlins or fairies for all the basis the “no electronics” rule has. 

  2. I was once told by cabin staff (on a very quiet, particularly friendly flight) that the reason they didn’t like electronics being used was more to do with having the attention of passengers: most accidents and turbulence happen during take-off and landing, so they don’t want stuff that would distract during an emergency or fly around the cabin if it gets rough. She may have been spinning me a line, but it sort of made sense.

    1. yes, when the flight staff want your attention, then for the safety of yourself, and the other passengers, you ought to pay attention.

      Alternately, if you don’t pay attention to them, they can throw you off their airplane before they leave the gate, or they can land somewhere special just for you at your own expense.

      Telling people how to run their airplane is like telling people how to run their blog.

    2. This would only hold water if they similarly prohibited reading books during these phases, which they don’t.

  3. First, it’s “institution”, singular, not institutions, plural, because there’s only one institution that is imposing this rule – the FAA. They also impose a lot of other nonsensical rules, along with a few that are reasonable. The standards *were* defined by some bureaucratic committee in the mists of history, because that’s how all government regulations are defined. And it should also be obvious that they are not defined on a scientific basis, but on who benefits politically. To admit their mistake would be embarrassing and would reduce public belief in their efficacy, which is intolerable to the bureaucratic mind. This phenomenon is also the reason Bradley Manning is in jail and the TSA still exists. The real question is not “why does this silly policy exist?”, but rather “why does the public keep putting up with these nonsensical rules and believing that these people have any clue what they doing?”

    1. FAA – Federal Aviation Administration. Federal meaning USA in this case. Other countries have their own authorities but the same policy.

  4. Beaurocrats are identifiable by their willingness to enforce odd rules long after whatever justification that may have existed is lost to the mists of time. The rules are there, so there must be a damn good reason for them being there, is the thinking.

      1. By this logic, the fact that there’s a chance of an ‘unforseen chemical reaction’ between the clothes of a passenger and the hydraulic lines controlling the control surfaces means that everybody should be forced to fly naked. 

        Because there’s a ‘chance’, you see…

          1. I don’t know, there are some pretty good books out there…

            But it’s not a reductio ad absurdum, there’s an equal amount of data supporting the assertion that a kindle can interfere with avionics as there is that clothing can outgas and cause hydraulic lines to fail. 

  5. I expect one of the other issues is that the flight attendants don’t to have to deal with passengers who have similar but non-approved devices.  It’s easier for them just to say “no devices” rather than allowing devices x, y, and z and being forced to take the  time to verify.

    1. (Okay. I might as well contribute constructively)

      I agree. The technical factors are easy to solve for. It’s the asshole quotient on airlines that is the wild card.

      Just as beaurocracies  maintain rules for the sake of self preservation, selfish assholes like to break rules for the sake of preserving their right to be selfish assholes.

      When we’re shooting down the runway at 200 mph, sit down, keep your belt on, put your seat up, stow away your personal items, turn off your electronic devices, and listen to those who are in charge of keeping the peace on the jet powered missle that we’re all strapped into… or I will do it for you.

      1. Yeah, but then you’ll be a hypocrite, as “doing it for” someone entails not sitting down, keeping y our belt on, or listening yourself.

    2. What exactly would “non-approved devices” look like? Are there “ultra kindles” out there that have radios which broadcast high-power hard x-rays or something? 

      AFAIK, all of the conceivable devices we’re talking about put out, at most, some low-power wifi or cellular signals. Or essentially nothing at all if they are in “airplane mode”.

      And I would certainly hope that airplanes are capable of coping with that. They certainly appear to be – since dozens of those devices are probably left on anyway (either accidentally or deliberately) in every single flight. 

      (In fact, I would hope that airplanes are designed to safely cope with a good deal more.  I doubt it is beyond the power of one or another group of malefactors to design small transmitters specifically designed to interfere with unshielded avionics or navigation systems.)

      1. Jacklecou, In reply to an earlier message of yours, (there was no reply link on that- maybe too many levels?) in which you discuss ”
        2. At cruising altitude, ground cell stations are typically far out of range anyway (I don’t recall exactly, but I think the cutoff is not even 10,000 feet, never mind 30k-40k.). ”  While 6 or 8 miles is very far if you’re on the ground, it is almost trivial when you have a direct line of sight with the tower, even through the tiny windows of a plane (which are relatively big with respect to the frequencies that cell phones run at). Cellular systems work by limiting the number of people that can connect- in reality, if you have a very crowded area, you add more cells and you *lower* the existing stations to make them cover a smaller area (which won’t work if you have airborne handsets). There are many BS reasons why some don’t want cell phones on planes, but network related reasons are entirely valid. 

        Seamless routing of calls is a pretty amazing technology that cell networks implement, but it is made many orders of magnitude harder (and more expensive) if you change towers rapidly and possibly skip large distances between towers.  The routing algorithms rely heavily on proximity- I’m much more likely to jump to the tower in an adjacent cell rather than one 15 miles away.

        If we’re going to want to use the same network for airborne calls as for those with their feet on the ground, we’re going to have to be ready to pay for much, much more expensive infrastructure.

        1. As I said, I don’t recall the falloff ceiling exactly, but in most cases it is well below cruising altitude.

          Note that the FCC actually permits the use of the upper GSM bands on US flights -1800/1900/2100 MHz. Several airlines have been investigating the deployment of cabin picocells, the kind in use on a few airlines elsewhere in the world. 

          As far as I or Wikipedia knows, only the (longer range) 800MHz band is actually prohibited by the FCC out of concern about interference with ground stations, and I’d bet even that is rather conservative. 

          (And as far as technology goes, yes, cell handoff is pretty impressive. But even so, radio firmware that progressively throttles connection attempts after a few characteristic failures would be very simple, and likely more than sufficient. That’s a minimum solution – I leave the floor open to refinements, existing or otherwise. Certainly the existing system does not seem excessively troubled by the literally millions of handsets that remain switched on in flight every year…)

  6. A buddy of mine is a pilot (commuter planes, not the big ones), and he swears that he can tell if there’s something electronic on in the plane by the way certain of his instruments act.

    1. Any instruments in particular?  Can he tell if there’s something electronic on in his car by the way the instruments act?  They’re just as likely to be affected…

      1. The instrumentation in your car, no matter how cool/advanced/expensive does not come close to the number of or complexity of the instruments on the average passenger jet. Pick up a book for the “ground school” portion of a pilot’s license and just check out the instruments in a non “glass cockpit” Cessna. Apples and oranges.

        1. I’m a pilot and aircraft owner, and you’re off base.  The instruments in a modern jet are probably less complicated than the circuitry in modern cars by an order of magnitude.  Even a full glass cockpit has a lot in common with a 5-6 year old OEM navigation system from a car both because of the time to certify and the small size of the market. 

          Actual interference between these devices and avionics has yet to be demonstrated.  Whatever happened to evidence being needed?

        2. As a private pilot and electronic engineer with more than a few hours logged in the guts of various planes and cars, I’d respectfully disagree with you on that.

          Hint – most “non glass cockpit” instruments are mechanical.  Even the glass cockpit ones are no more sophisticated than the electronic dashboard in a modern car.

      2. I wish to heck I could remember.  The conversation was a couple of months ago.

        If it’s not real (I really have no idea), maybe it’s a “placebo effect” sort of thing where pre-conception affects perception.

  7. There are several reason why Kindles and Sony readers and Nooks and Kobos and Hanlins and PocketBooks and … are forbidden during take-of and landing.

    1. Some units use 3G, others WiFi, BlueTooth, and Good-knows-what. And, I am pretty sure the day after that commission sits down and allows e-ink readers some manufacturer would come up with a new gadget with completely different hardware that would have to be evaluated anew.  It would be difficult to write a manual for flight personnel to differentiate between devices that are safe and devices that *might* be unsafe.

    2. Some units are heavier than others and it wouldn’t be good if they were flying over the heads of passengers like missiles in case of landing or take-of trouble. I know that Kindle 3 is a very light device. But again, some 10 inch readers, in a sturdy case might become a missile.

    3. During take-of you are supposed to be paying attention to flight attendant  as [s]he explains the use of oxygen masks, emergency exits, seatbelts, and other things. Again, you might have heard it hundreds of times but it would be difficult to differentiate between newbie and veteran passengers. You also have to pay attention in case something unexpected happens. As you know, there is much higher probability that something sudden happens during take-of and landing than during flight in high altitude.

    Of course airlines AND TSA know that there is no harmful interference from modern electronics. Otherwise those vigilant TSA guys would be confiscating mobile phones, Kindles, PDAs together with nail clippers, nail files, liquids, gels, dirty diapers, and other stuff.

    1. This and similar justifications might sense if kindles and  ipads were supposed to be put away for takeoff and landing.

      They’re not. Just turned off. As long as the screen is dark, I’ve never had anyone bother me about anything in my hands or lap. Including hot coffee and heavy books.

      Last I checked, turning a kindle off didn’t make it any lighter or softer.

  8. Another factor to consider is the combined effect of 300 of the devices. Yes, they proved that a single Kindle is nowhere near the limit that aircraft must withstand, but they did not prove that an airplane where every passenger has one and is using it is similarly safe.

    Given the magnitudes quoted in the article, the plane would likely be safe with that many devices, but every increase in EM emission coming from within the cabin reduces the safety margin/protection against external interference.

    I’d be curious to see just how much EM the average person puts out, with a cell phone, mp3 player, kindle, laptop, etc.

    1. “Another factor to consider is the combined effect of 300 of the devices.”

      Actually…no it isn’t, as noted in the article:

      “Electromagnetic energy doesn’t add up like that. Five Kindles will not put off five times the energy that one Kindle would,” explained Kevin Bothmann, EMT Labs testing manager. “If it added up like that, people wouldn’t be able to go into offices, where there are dozens of computers, without wearing protective gear.”

  9. Mythbusters (yeah, I know, but still…) tackled the issue of cell phones on planes, and what I remember was that somebody from the FAA basically said they’re probably safe, but it would be way too much time and energy to test every single revision of every product by every manufacturer to be 100% sure.  While I don’t particularly agree with the ban-everything-just-in-case approach, it does make a certain amount of sense.

  10. You can’t even get on a plane without being scanned naked, getting your genitals groped, or having your embarrassing medical devices poked and prodded, and you want to complain about not being able to use a Kindle for a while few minutes during a takeoff or landing (when everything else you happen to have has to be stowed in case of an emergency)? And you wonder why freedom disappears so easily with priorities like this.

    1. “everything else” does not have to be stowed. people read hardback books, newspapers, even have headphones around their necks. there is no consistent application of the rule.

      because the rule is an ass.

      1. no no, the rule inconveniences asses. The rest of us don’t feel SO important that we decide purchasing a ticket puts us in charge. That sort of belief is the realm of asshats. 

        1. us “asshats” over here like to think we live in a capitalist democracy where your personal beliefs don’t get to override my personal freedoms, and your personal opinions don’t become law for the rest of us.

          easy solution: you can pay for a ticket on a plane which has these rules, and i’ll pay for one that doesn’t.

          if i go down in flames, you won’t have to deal with me troll-baiting your responses. wouldn’t that be great?

          – dmc

          1. if you’re going to use that argument then buy your own airline and run it as you see fit, until then you are as free to speak as to stfu, and the prerogative is your own. 

  11. Most planes these days have an electronic “entertainment”  device in the seatback of every single seat. These devices may not have any wi-fi or radio chips (tho they do have a credit card input slot, so they must have some transmission capabilities), still, how can these be different than the tablets, phones, kindles, and other portable electronics individual passengers may own?

    Also, if our devices mess with the gauges in the cockpit why the hell are we allowed to use them once we pass 10k feet? 

    BTW, they also specifically call out noise-cancelling headphones nowadays. My money is with the idea that they just want everyone’s undivided attention.

    1. “Also, if our devices mess with the gauges in the cockpit why the hell are we allowed to use them once we pass 10k feet? ”
      The party line is: because take-off and landing is a critical time with slim margins for error since the plane is so close to the ground. If some instrument goes haywire, the pilot (who is focused on getting the plane on/off the ground) may not have enough time to figure out what’s wrong and correct it before he leaves a smoking crater in the landscape. 

      If an instrument screws up at altitude, it is less dangerous, since the pilot can give it his undivided attention, and the plane is not in as immediate danger as it is when it is close to the ground (i.e. a minute or two to craterdom vs. seconds).

      It sounds at least somewhat plausible, as far as the “gadgets can interfere with instruments” rational goes.

  12. What I can’t stand is when I’m told to put away my GPS.  I usually only have it on during takeoff and landing to track the flight patterns in and out of airports (you can then transfer the track to google earth to see it in 3D, and even try to fly it yourself with the flight sim), but I sometimes turn it on mid-flight to see where we are.  I’m even told by some flight attendants that it’s not permitted at all during flight.  It’s just a stand-alone model, with no ability to transmit any kind of signal.  So I end up having to hold it low, at my side, out of sight near to, but below the window which sometimes causes it to lose signal, and causes me to curse those who would spoil such good clean fun for no apparent reason.

    1. You might look into getting an external antenna which you can discreetly run up near the window while the device remains hidden. I’m not sure which model you have of course, but if it’s not a bare-bones cheap model it will probably have an attachment port for an external antenna. They’re cheap – I wouldn’t pay more than $15-20 and I think you can find them for under $10.

      I have used my high-end GPS unit (which I have for geology field work) mid-flight a few times just for fun. Not sure if the flight attendants saw me, but I wasn’t hiding it, and no one stopped me. That was a few years ago though. Nowadays even the cheap carriers have upgraded their older planes and have video screens and you can always pull up a map. I like to have my own data too, but I don’t typically carry a GPS unit with me and for idle curiosity the provided map and speed/elevation data is fine :)

  13. Steam will completely denature the iron crystals in your tinfoil hat–as any non-CIA operative would know!

  14. No bureaucrat wants to be the one to go out on a limb and overturn the rule.  Let’s say that Bureaucrat Bob decided to withdraw that rule.  It is stricken from the books.  Then Amazon came out with a Kindle 5 that, for whatever reason, leaked a lot of EMF.  A few months later, a plane crashes with a passenger holding a Kindle 5.  The crash could be totally unrelated to the Kindle 5, but everyone would be pointing their fingers at Bob and he may not longer be able to hold a bureaucratic job.  It’s in their best interest to be conservative about these rules. Me?  I just travel by car and train because nonsensical legislation hasn’t reached those realms yet.

    1. More than the question of what happens to those that overturn the rule, there is a cognitive bias to entrench positions taken – one the rule exists, it does not matter why, those charged with enforcing it are psychologically primed to defend it.
      And I suspect that once sides are taken, a stockholm syndrome-like effect occurs, where those that have endured the rules now feel they must be justified. It is similar to the continuation of hazing; if I had to go through it, it must be justifiable.

  15. James Fallows, at the Atlantic, has had about a half-dozen columns about this in the past month, with opinions from quite a few pilots (Fallows is himself a small-plane pilot, as well as a well-known journalist/commentator).  The most convincing general argument I heard there was “We have enough communications problems with the things we can’t control — why make it worse by allowing things we could make people turn off?”

  16. its not that these devices may interference with the plane and its sensors. its that they want you alert to anything that might happen. the most dangerous times in plane travel is take off and landing. and now that they have to do these crazy manuvers to mitigate noise its even more dangerous. as was stated above by a couple people its to make sure they have your undivided attention. i have flown a bunch and i can honestly say some people dont need to be distracted. 

    1. That doesn’t sound reasonable because aside from the absurdity of the idea that a kindle (or gaming device, tablet, whatever) is so engrossing as to make someone oblivious to an emergency, it is inconsistent in that non-electronic attention demanding objects (i.e. books) are still allowed.  Take-off and landing may be the most dangerous periods of flight, but that’s a pressure the pilots bear.  It’s not like my attention helps.  You don’t see flight attendants going around waking everyone up at those times.  I really don’t understand why so many people in this thread are coming to the defense of the FAA by playing a rather unconvincing game of devil’s advocate.

      1. I always assumed it had more to do with not having laptops and whatnot strewn about people’s laps in case there is an emergency. You don’t really want anything larger than a book flying about the cabin if something unplanned happens during takeoff or landing. Also having stuff like laptops in every person’s lap, and all their tray tables down or seats reclined, is NOT a desirable situation if the plane ends up going through an emergency evacuation. Takeoff and landing is not just a critical time for the pilots, it’s about the only time that an emergency will involve you rather than happen to you. If there is a cabin fire and we make it to a stop on a runway, I don’t want all your crap in my way as I try to make it to the emergency exit, and planes are cramped enough. If you can’t handle putting your stuff away for 10 minutes, please don’t fly. The chances that an emergency evacuation will ever happen to you? Tiny. But if it happens, I don’t want my chances of survival cut back by someone’s self centered, incessant need for stimulation.

        1. I notice that in this and your other post you’ve tried to exaggerate and even misstate the issue.  Nobody is arguing that we should be allowed to have our trey tables down.  That’s completely different.  Nobody is even discussing laptops, which by the way, are only a concern as a potential projectile, not, as you suggest, an obstacle to someone trying to pass a seat-that’s absurd.  That’s all that’s really worth replying to in your post.  I’ve also noticed that everyone sticking up for the FAA has used their defense of the policy to really make a larger, but entirely tangential point about a sense of entitlement among passengers.  Irrelevant.

  17. once the plane starts taxing from the gate the attendants get ready for take off. So really you only have a few minutes when they will be walking around telling you to turn it off. I just keep my eyes open and hide it well. Ignore the rules

    1. This works fine until you end up with an excessively credulous seat mate who thinks you’re going to make the plane flip upside down or something.

      Wasn’t there a story recently about a man who physically attacked someone in flight because they left their ipod or whatever on? (Notably, HE was the one arrested, not the person who was allegedly endangering the entire flight with their oh-so-risky Apple Corp. brand EM interference device. Funny that.)

  18. We’d all be a lot safer against the kind of terrorism that took place on 9/11 if the money that now pays for the TSA had instead been invested into designing and installing really bad-ass sprinkler systems for every skyscraper of note in mainland USA. TSA scanning at airports is a load of bureaucratic BS, as is the refusal to allow operation of Kindles / mobile phones / laptops aboard aircraft. 

    Turning off your phone during take off and landing is the transport equivalent of christmas  dinner with the Kooky relatives who make you say grace in latin before starting the meal when your girlfriend is Hindu. You know that what they’re demanding is irrational and unfounded, but it’s only mildly inconvenient, so you go along with it to avoid creating a fuss. same with TSA, same with powering off the Kindle. 

    … wouldn’t it be nice if we had evidence based policies towards Kindles on airplanes / towards transport security / towards drug use? Yes, it would, but it’s not worth me or you going into politics and spending a decade lobbying to implement what should be common sense already, we’ve got better things to do.

     – whereas for people who are going to benefit financially from selling airport scanners to a credulous and misinformed government, it really is worth lobbying for such things every day, they make a lot of money from it and get secure careers, whilst only imposing moderate inconvenience on the travelling populace at large.

  19. I’ve had the theory for a while that the reason for turning off electrical devices was for legal issues.  If you’re listening to justin beiber and miss the instructions on how to put on your seatbelt, use the seat cushion as a floatation device, or exit the craft in case of emergency, and something were to go wrong, and you were injured due to lack of education on procedure, the airline could potentially face a lawsuit because you’re silly face didn’t get the memo…and could sue the company… so its just a guess that its a ploy to legally cover their backsides, especially since all of the sensitive avi should be shielded from electrostatic discharge anyhow.  
    Soon robots will fly the planes though and we won’t have to worry.  Does anyone know if they allow the use of electronic devices on blimp takeoffs?  

      1. except, of course, the FAA rule is developed with input from stakeholders with public safety as the goal, and it was decidedly not developed with input from the general public with the maximum happiness for everyone at all times as the goal.

          1. Uhhh, my family includes commercial pilots, and my username is from 20 years ago, when I was still more clever than you. Time to come down from your horse, julien

  20. 100V/m is quite a high field strength.  Does this mean that if I put away my Kindle I can play with my 50W amateur radio transmitter instead?

  21. Rob… The issue with electronic devices on airplane cabins is more complicated than just proving a single Kindle’s emissions is very low. You have to consider that the rule cannot discriminate between devices. The Flight Attendants cannot say “Please turn off all electronic devices, except for Kindles of a certain model, etc.” The rule has to apply to all devices. Also, consider the fact that if you allow one passenger to keep their device on, you must allow the remaining 300+ passengers to do the same. You could potentially have hundreds of electronic devices, of various kinds, operating at one time. As an airline pilot, I have encountered passengers attempting to use mobile GPS units, walkie-talkies, frequency counters, and a variety of devices, all legal, that could interfere with avionics and other systems that are vulnerable to interference, such as the hydraulic brake systems on some aircrafts. I have also heard telephone interference on my headphones from passengers having conversations on analog frequencies while taxiing on the ground.

    These devices are only limited during the most critical phases of flight, take-off and landing, to prevent a possible problem. I think we can all be a little patient and stop using these devices for a few minutes while the aircraft and crew are trying to ensure our safety. Yeah… Maybe if 300 passengers are using electronic devices at once nothing will happen, but will you take that chance when you are the one strapped to one those seats?

    1. This would make sense if flight attendants went through the cabin with scanners to verify that there were no powered-on devices or harmful interference. (Or searched people’s luggage to make sure that every rectangular box with a battery and a circuit board is really just a powered down laptop and not an active high-powered ham radio transmitter.)

      But they don’t. They just glance around to make sure nobody’s obviously still tapping away a text message or (gasp) reading a kindle. And, on average, dozens of these supposedly harmful devices likely remain powered on (in pockets or luggage, or in people’s hands with the screens off) on every single take off and landing. Tens of thousands of flights a year. Not one crash has ever been attributed to electronic interference from a laptop or cell phone, and try as they might, no one at the FAA or FCC has produced any evidence that these devices produce harmful interference.

      So yes, when I am the one strapped in one of those seats, which happens often enough, I’ll gladly take the “chance”, which is evidently vanishingly tiny by any objective measure. But I guess only because I’m  hoping the designers of the aircraft remembered to wrap some RF shielding around the critical control cables*.  At least enough to cope with somebody’s stray ipad or walkie talkie. (Never mind somebody’s maliciously designed laptop-sized RF interference device.)

      * Indeed, as the quoted text points out, FAA regulations require planes to safely cope with quite a large amount of interference. Many orders of magnitude beyond what any consumer electronics devices put out. Possibly even beyond what a device deliberately designed to cause interference might be able to put out. As well they should. 

    2. How the hell could a “mobile” GPS unit (are they making stationery units these days?) “interfere with avionics”?  It receives, it does not transmit.

  22. One thing the article assumes is that every Kindle is always functioning perfectly. To be truly scientific about it, you need to figure out every possible failure mode a Kindle can go into (every way it can be damaged by water, by impact, etc. essentially, damage it in every possible combination of ways so each individual component fails in every possible way) that may affect its operation and therefore production of electrical interference. And you need to do that for every other freaking gadget on the planet that can be fit into an airplane cabin.

    Probably a shortcut would be: how big a spark could you get from the gadget’s battery in the worse case scenario? That’s probably going to produce the most electrical noise and the worst possible interference. Given the battery size of most gadgets, I’d guess that it won’t approach the design limits of the aircraft. 

    In other words, don’t focus on the gadgets… focus on the energy they store. Can they possibly generate enough interference in the worst case scenario to interfere with the plane? If so, ban them all together. Otherwise, put the argument to rest.

    1. So what I hear you saying is: “People should turn off their kindles, well, just because, that’s why!”

      Good reasoning.

  23. The well-deserved hatred of the TSA’s politically motivated security theater is spilling over and causing collateral damage here.  Which, I guess, is yet another reason to hate the TSA: by training us to assume that most of the rules imposed in the name of “security” are utter BS, it delegitimizes other, non-TSA (and non-BS) airline safety measures.

    @boingboing-9968ab5a435e6b83b056ca4a481f8d74:disqus — an airline pilot — makes a very cogent argument as to why the “turn your electronics off” rule is in place.  And unlike the TSA rules that most security professionals laugh at, most avionics industry professionals agree that the no-electronics rule is a pragmatic and reasonable precaution.  Kindles may generate only a negligible amount of interference, but there are lots of other devices (e.g. cell phones) that emit interference that is 10,000 times higher that the Kindle; neither the passengers nor the flightcrew can reasonably be expected to know which devices are low-emissions, and which devices are potential problems.  And, in a fly-by-wire airplane which relies on radio beacons, GPS, and radar altimeters to safely land, the consequences of radio interference can be significantly greater than the layman assumes.

  24. GSM cell phones DO emit interference.  It is the source of the click/buzz you hear on computer speakers before it rings.  Do YOU know where all the wires are in a plane that will pick that up and interfere with audio communication or instruments?
    What devices have a GSM transceiver? 
    It is much easier to have a blanket policy then a good device/bad device list.  Also who pays for all the extra testing?

    1. Which explains all those planes getting lost or falling out of the air on (non-US) airlines that allow in flight cellular phone use.

      Oh. Wait.

    1.  The blanket “no electronic devices” rule is hypocritical at best. I have never seen the flight attendants ask anyone to yank the batteries out of a wristwatch, or FSM forbid, turn off a hearing aid or pacemaker.

      While the sheeple’s devices are off, the aircraft itself is emitting all kinds of radiation, as well as getting hosed with external interference, radars, and so on. It’s the EM equivalent of telling everyone sitting in row C of a heavy metal concert to keep it down, because they might interfere with the delicate sounds of the show.

      1. You make a good point in that during takeoff/landing the plane is being hit with lots of EMF from ground radar and navaids. Not to mention its own radio transmitters, none of which seems to bother it. If cabin EMF is an issue, design the cabin as a Faraday shield, and be done with it.

  25. Lots of things you don’t understand seem arbitrary. Some of them are. This study does not prove that any particular regulation or policy is entirely arbitrary. If you want to have your opinion carry weight, become involved and informed.

  26. I’ve used my GPS attached to my laptop on a number of occasions. It reads out the altitude and speed in addition to showing me where we are on a map. On more than one occasion, the flight attendants have said that we’ve dropped below 20,000 feet when we’ve been well above that altitude.

    I complied anyway. Flight attendants jobs are hard enough as it is.

    1. Of course, GPS altitude measurements are not accurate. They can be 100x (or more) more inaccurate than the accuracy reading your device gives you, which is for x-y position only. Typically on the ground at lower altitudes it’s not bad, but you have to expect it to be a minimum of 50-100 m off.

      GPS handsets designed for people who do serious off-trail, mountaineering, or whatever kind of stuff (including me! I’m a geologist) include a barometric altimeter to get around that issue, but that wouldn’t give an accurate reading in a pressurized aircraft either.

      Someone might want to correct me on this, but my hunch would be that at high altitudes (20,000 ft, for example) the math involved in getting an altitude measurement from GPS signals would tend toward even higher inaccuracies.

      There are ground-based differential GPS systems that give accurate altitude measurements (which require base stations set up at places with precisely known altitude and lat/long), but that’s out of the realm of casual use to put it mildly.

      1. I think that in principal, altitude measurement should get better the higher you get.    

        GPS calculations tend to be more accurate the wider the angle between available satellites is on a given axis. That means for vertical measurements you’d ideally want to see satellites above and below you — unfortunately there’re usually bits of planet in the way of the latter, so vertical accuracy stinks. On the ground, you probably can’t even pick up good signals from satellites near the horizon, never mind below it. But at a high enough altitude, I would think that situation improves. You might start to see satellites that are at least below your horizontal plane, if there isn’t too much atmosphere in the way.

        Of course, in practice, if you’re sitting in a passenger seat with a handheld unit, the fuselage probably limits your reception quite a bit. It might end up a wash or worse.

  27. The takeoff and landing ban on noise reducing headphones particularly ticks me off. The headphones preferentially reduce the low frequency noise in the plane, they make it easier to hear the stewardess. One significant market for noise reducing headphones is for in flight use by small plane pilots. And I know how they work and there are no frequencies higher than audio in them. No way they could create interference. Note: I worked just down the hall from the headphone guys at Bose.

  28. Here’s an explanation of those rules from an airline pilot, which isn’t totally satisfying, but is at least straightforward: 

  29. It has nothing to do with interference. The FAA doesn’t really want to discuss it (especially during preflight), but radio-enabled devices have a long history as triggers for explosive devices.

    1. Which is why possible trigger devices like cell phones are checked for and confiscated at airport security checkpoints. And why airplane cabins are equipped with RF scanners to detect potential trigger devices. And why electronic devices are strictly prohibited during the entire portion of the flight which would be vulnerable to stuff blowing up (i.e., the whole thing) not just takeoff and landing.

      Oh wait. None of those things are true. There’s nothing in place even remotely resembling an attempt to prevent small electronic devices that might be surreptitiously used as bomb triggers. 


  30. I’d just LOVE to be a steward if Kindles somehow managed to get special exemption.

    “No, sir, he doesn’t have to stow his hard glass-and-poisonous-liquid-crystal device, since it has negligible electromagnetic signature. Yes, I am aware that he has some dongles in the USB slot that could be bluetooth or wifi dongles, but rules are rules. Yes, I know the person to the other side has a Kindle 2017, which has enough electromagnetic power to melt a hole in the hull, but they haven’t updated the exception rules for the latest models, yet, so all kindles are allowed. ”

    “Now please stow your daughter’s dolly, because it is hard plastic and might hurt people if we hit turbulence. Thank you.”

  31. > why do these institutions insist on clinging to this particular line of security nonsense?

    Easy. Because they are not subject to competition. The FAA is a government monopoly.

    1. Hmm. That’s not exactly the reason.

      The airlines aren’t monopolies or governments, but as institutions they are equally conservative and uninterested in overturning the status quo here. 

      I’d say it’s not really a government/competition thing. It’s really just the usual mix of institutional inertia and bureaucratic disinterest – public and private. Combined in this case with a lack of any strong institution with an opposing stake and a surplus of credulous authority seekers (viz: quite a disappointing number of folks in this thread) who provide cover for the inane policy. 

      1. It is correct that there is competition between airlines, and inertia certainly plays a role, but consider the incentives for airlines to argue with the regulating agency (ie. the monopoly).
        The potential gains here are small (a tiny bit of incremental customer satisfaction), relative to the risks that such lobbying would backfire and upset the agency.

        1. Well, it’s doubtful that airlines are worried about “upsetting” the agency. If there was even a marginally good commercial reason to overturn the rule, they could get it done in short order. And it’s hard to see how or why the FAA or FCC would be particularly upset about that or what they could do if they were. (It’d be easy enough for the PR line to switch over 180 degrees to “we’ve taken a new look, and modern portable electronic devices with ‘airplane’ modes are perfectly safe and certified by the FCC to not cause harmful interference, yadda yadda…”)

          But you’re right, the issue here is about the level of demand for change vs. the level of status quo bias and inertia. Not any monopoly. Even if we could somehow have two or more “competing” regulators here (or say, if it were up to the airlines), it’s still not clear that any of them would have any particular reason to fix this rule.

          Because competition can’t save you if nobody has any incentive to compete for the thing that’s wanted. The problem here is that the stupid rule is institutionally entrenched and there is simply no particular constituency for overturning it.  There’s a few people complaining on the internet, but it’s not as if any noticeable number of us refuse to fly because we can’t read our kindles for 60 minutes or so out of a flight. And most people don’t even get that far – they think there must be a good reason for the rule. (As we can see, some of them even go to great lengths to try to guess or create a reason where there isn’t one.) And of course, to the airlines it may even be useful, for one reason or another – or at least it used to be.

          1. You’ve raised a key point that I think many people are missing – on most flights it is indeed 60 minutes or more of time where you’re supposed to have your devices off. That’s taxiing, takeoff, ascent, descent, landing, taxiing.

            If it was 5 or 10 minutes at a time it wouldn’t cause too many grumbles (though it’s still a stupid rule), but if you’ve got a Kindle or other e-reader you probably don’t have anything else to read or do for quite a long time (in-flight entertainment is off during this time also) because you don’t carry paper-based reading material any more. Meanwhile, people with hardcover books which are just as much of a missile hazard receive no hassle.

            I think I’ve hit on their plan, here. As e-reader ownership has increased, Skymall sales have coincidentally been down. Solution: make Skymall the only thing available to read for significant portions of the flight (for people who can afford a Kindle and therefore have money to buy things from Skymall).

  32. The crew want your attention, and they don’t want loose objects.
    On landing (particularly) they don’t want electrical interference of any sort. Some devices output interference that is strong enough to mildly affect avionics, other devices don’t. On approach and landing you DO NOT want that to happen (read up on ILS CAT3 approaches: short form, landing in zero cloud height and zero visibility. 1 degree error on the approach and you plow into something other than a runway at 250km/h and go BOOM).

    The crew don’t want to hold a list and check your device against that list (that would simply be insane work, and would take an hour or so) so they ask you to stow ALL your devices and turn them ALL off. See back to the “the crew want your attention” part. They don’t want loose objects, and don’t want you to miss important safety information in the case of an emergency. On that last point, if you have a crash landing and are oblivious to what is happening or don’t respond because you have headphones on, then you will fairly probably die. That’s just how it goes. Many reasons (and has been researched). 
    You will also increase the risk of death for anyone who has to get past you. They may not like that.
    Note that this could be from using a WalkMan cassette player, which doesn’t output any levels of interference that need to be taken into account.

    Stow your damned device, turn it off…. there are reasons. Not all of them about interference (although some are), but they still matter.

    1. @boingboing-ce4803f46af6cc63c81bde4fa8996638:disqus sounds like you love their brand of koolaid.
      First and foremost, I really don’t care what the crew wants. Working very small tables at high altitude should not imbue a waitress with special authority over me.
      There are actually no legit reasons to turn off your devices. NASA, the FAA, and other have done the scientific studies and have never been able to get a consumer electronic device to interfere with an aircraft’s avionics, sensors, or ability to fly.
      Continuing to spread this kind of misinformation is nothing more than anti-science superstition which we can all do without.
      As for crash landing survivability, the use of a kindle isn’t going to change a thing. Suggesting otherwise if laughable.

      1. I’ve SEEN these devices affect navigational devices, I’ve NOT HEARD what is being said through the radio due to the use of electronic devices (the interference pattern of a cellphone is unmistakable). The loss of even one instruction from the

        Most other pilots can tell you similar stories.
        Small deviations? Sure. Real uncomfortable? Yep. Unnecessary risk? Youbetcha.

        Even with the above all said, I don’t really worry about the interference effect much. It takes specific circumstances to create a real problem. I really think more about the douche in the next seat who doesn’t understand that the stewardesses are NOT there to wait tables, but primarily as security agents. Their job is to secure the cabin for critical flight regimes, and set the escape systems to the correct modes as required, as well as explaining boring safety stuff to the passengers. They do also serve food and assist the passengers (and sell crap) but that is not their primary function. I can guarantee that RyanAir wouldn’t have a single flight attendant onboard if it weren’t mandated (including minimum numbers for the aircraft sizes, and their safety training is also mandated).

        So, there are other aspects, and I am not particularly superstitious on this. In fact, quite the opposite. I can actually go through the air accident reports I already have at home, as well as research and training material for exactly this kind of crap.

        Stow your stuff during take-off and landing. The people who know what to do, know where the exits are, know the emergency procedures, those have repeatedly been the people who escape in case of accidents such as runway overruns (happens too often), aircraft fires on the ground, and even more serious crashes where the fuselage breaks. The people with headphones in their ears or stuff in front of them are more likely to die in relatively minor accidents (such as runway overruns, which can be quite bad. This is why you have to place the tray in the upright position). This, I don’t really care about. I seriously don’t care if you choose to take risks which give no real benefit (5 more minutes of watching a DVD or reading a book? Seriously?). I do care about you risking others who don’t want to get blocked by the dead guy between them and escape. At least do us all a favour and take a window seat! You can crush your ribcage and face on your laptop there, and not be in my way when I go towards the exits…

        But don’t listen to me, I don’t know anything about this. I’m probably just being superstitious and stupid and “drinking the koolaid”….or something.

        1. Pilots are frequent reporters of UFO sightings too. This doesn’t actually mean there’s a substantial risk of space aliens probing us or mutilating our cows.

          There are apparently numerous reports of flight crews observing minor instrument or other anomalies which they correlate with someone’s use of some electronic device. Many of those incidents have been investigated by airlines and airplane manufacturers. Sometimes with the exact same device that purportedly caused the problem (purchased from the original user).

          To the best of the internet’s knowledge, _not a single incident has been verified._

          I’m equally skeptical of the fear mongering about radio reception:

          1. Garbled radio transmissions happen all the time for any number of reasons. It’s part of the medium. That’s why there are protocols for acknowledging and repeating transmissions, etc. An [alleged] burst of static or hum from someone turning on a phone is no different from any of the hundreds of other atmospheric or electronic phenomena which might temporarily interrupt communication. 

          2. There really shouldn’t be much interference in the first place. Aviation VHF bands top out well below 200 MHz. Cell phones operate at a minimum of 800-900 MHz, if not 1800 MHz or higher.  I’m not a radio engineer, but unless you’re using the phone right next to the radio antenna or something, that should be a pretty clean separation. And remember that both the phones and the airplane’s radio equipment go through extensive FCC testing and certification for exactly this kind of problem.

          3. Internationally, there are several airlines which have “pico cells” installed in their aircraft allowing passengers to make calls with their own phones while in flight. Are you suggesting that they don’t know what they’re doing, or that this is dangerous somehow, or that those pilots must be having all kinds of radio problems?  Note that even in the US, I believe only 800 MHz bands are actually prohibited for use in flight (because their greater range might cause more confusion for ground stations, NOT because of concerns about interference with cockpit equipment). So similar pico cells could be used even in US under current regulations (albeit not on takeoff or landing).

  33. Nearly every commercial airliner has, for the last decade, taken off and landed with at least a few, if not dozens, of active cell phones and Blackberries sending and receiving during the process.  That has been true since Blackberries were invented, because there is a significant number (minority? majority?) of users who have refused to turn theirs off, or who simply have them in the overhead bin and don’t turn them off.  If there were a meaningful risk, this would be taken seriously.  Because it was never a meaningful risk, it hasn’t been taken seriously.  Planes have never dropped out of the sky.  Those who object to this are, of course, a part of the group who (a) turn off their devices and (b) inexplicably believe that others are doing the same.  They are not.  Trust me.

    As for evacuation, I am willing to hear from someone who has narrowly survived an evacuation.  That would be nobody, since narrowly-survived evacuations don’t happen.  We run millions of commercial flights a year in the USA alone.  When was the last one?  Narrowly-survived?  Even the  plane that landed in the Hudson had a rather protracted period in which to float along and get everyone out calmly.  We are all apparently giving up billions in annual productivity to accommodate the precise eventuality of a flaming airplane that is situated just so, fitting perfectly the imagined scenario where my seatmate’s notebook computer blocks my path and I tragically perish.  Right.  Nobody has the right to expect that level of safety.  What precautions would we need to take in order to make driving that safe?  Easy: ban driving.

    For those whose offices are, in practice, the cabin of an airplane, this matters a lot.  There are no coherent arguments against using any sort of electronic device, and there are no statistically sound arguments in favor of almost any of the “safety” precautions taken on airplanes, since it would be safer to fly standing up smoking a pipe and operating a Vic 20 computer than it would be to walk or drive anywhere under almost any conditions.  This country is built on work.  That work should not be interrupted in the middle of the work-day for 15-30 minute intervals in order to accommodate the danger-delusions of those who fly infrequently.  If that doesn’t sound like a lot of time to you, multiply by the dozens of people on every flight that are trying to work, and the millions of commercial flights every year.  Realize that on most commuter flights, the practical effect, bearing in mind boot-up time for computers, is to eliminate any meaningful progress entirely.  It’s a significant productivity issue felt primarily by those who have a tendency to be productive.

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