On or Off: Which is it for Electronic Devices on Aircraft?


Tablets. Smartphones. eReaders. Laptops. The debate about using electronic devices on aircraft is back in the news. But there isn’t any new data. The reports circle the minefield without ever crossing the perimeter.

The primary question is whether electronic devices used by passengers block an aircraft’s GPS required for navigation.

It’s a well-traveled conversation and here at FlyerTalk we had plenty of discussion when an NBC report suggested a third of all airline passengers don’t turn off their electronic devices. The thread raised questions, posted right and wrong conclusions and barreled off topic until the moderator shut it off.

Sometimes technology can advance faster than scientific understanding.

Here’s one fact:  When I switch my iPhone to ‘Airplane Mode’ I’m shutting off the GPS (the electronic compass works but I get no GPS reading). Also, my phone stops seeking a Wi-Fi signal (searching for Wi-Fi is the default mode for iPhone). Nor do I receive a signal from a ground-based cellphone provider. You can prove all that at your desk.

But in ‘Airplane Mode’ I still can use my phone as an iPod (listening to music and podcasts). It’s also a camera, a photo album and everything else it can do without sending or receiving an external signal.

To many, the rules restricting tablets, phones, laptops, electronic reading devices and even MP3 players are far too restrictive for our fine broadband highway.

The latest news item comes from Bloomberg. The story begins with the usual anecdotal evidence:  the compasses on a regional carrier climbing through 9,000 feet go haywire until a flight attendant tells a passenger to switch off their iPhone. (No flight number cited; this apparently happened sometime in 2011.)

And of course Bloomberg recycles the December 2011 story of Alec Baldwin being removed from an American Airlines flight for refusing to turn off his phone. Reports say he was using his phone as a gamer, which works when ‘Airplane Mode’ is switched on.

But the airlines want our phones “stowed” with the rest of our carryon until we get the ‘go ahead’ in a cabin announcement. And then they must remain in ‘Airplane Mode.’

The FAA prohibits electronic use below 10,000 feet. They allow recording devices, hearing aids, heart pacemakers and electric shavers. (Great – descending down to the tarmac the women in the seat next to you can shave her pits after being asked to shut off her laptop.)

They say laptops that connect to “approved (onboard) Wi-Fi networks” are safe and don’t snaggle the cockpit’s compasses. Apparently they connect at low power levels and a third of commercial aircraft in the U.S. now have Wi-Fi. But a phone not set on ‘Airplane Mode’ tries to connect to a ground network, sending out a more powerful signal.

Bloomberg reports governments and airlines have “logged dozens of cases in which passenger electronics were suspected of interfering with navigation, radios and other aviation devices.” (Suspected may be the operative word.)

According to NASA, Boeing and the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority, “laboratory tests have shown some devices broadcast radio waves powerful enough to interfere with airline equipment.” (Laboratory may be the operative word.)

Delta apparently wants “relaxed rules” regarding electronic use, even though they’ve reported 27 “suspected incidents of passenger electronics causing aircraft malfunctions from 2010 to 2012.” (Suspected is the operative word. They could not verify the interference.)

Delta wants what its passengers want – more electronic use. But United Airlines wants no changes, suggesting it would be “difficult for flight attendants to enforce.”

A wireless trade group is urging that the FAA allow wider use of devices, stating “personal electronics don’t cause interference.” (But they cite no evidence.)

Add to this equation the transition aviation is making from the lumpy technology of compasses to satellite navigation where planes will be flying closer together using GPS technology. More unknowns in the minefield. The FAA says “interference from electronics cannot be tolerated.”

And adding more smoke and mirrors to the topic, Delta and Alaska Airlines allow their pilots to use Apple iPads containing maps and charts. They say these models of iPads don’t have wireless connectivity.

Are you confused? I am.

In July, an advisory committee appointed by the FAA will make recommendations “on whether or how to broaden electronic use on planes.”

Let’s give the last word to John Cox, a former pilot and CEO of Safety Operating Systems, a Washington-based consulting firm:  Any decision regarding electronic use on airplanes should be based on science, not on politics or passengers’ desires to stay connected.


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Comments (Showing 2 of 2)

  • sdsearch at 7:02pm May 21, 2013

    One of the big variables is that the RF sections of electronic devices can sometimes malfunction, in ways that are not apparent to the user. The user wouldn’t know if their device is suddenly emitting 1000x the normal signal in some circumstances, but that might be the difference between interefering with something and not interfering with something.

    Unfortunately, it’s not easy to diagnose the very occasional malfunctioning electronic device as everyone is boarding the plane, or already on the plane. (The device may not even malfunction all the time that it’s turned on, it may malfuciton only in sporadic bursts!) So the simple thing is to assume that someone, you don’t know who, on the plane MIGHT have a malfucntioning device, and on that basis, require that all such devices be turned off.

    (I don’t know how often PORTABLE electronic devices of today malfunction to emit more interference signals than normally. I have seen NON-portable devices — used in the home applicance world — that emitted TREMENDOUSLY more interference SPORADICALLY, in a way that was traced to a connector problem of some sort. But the ONLY symptom was the intereference they were causing to the equipment nearby; there was no malfunction discrenabile by the average person on the interference-causing device itself.)

    And how do you disprove the possibility of a malfuction scientifically???

    But the simplest solution would be to have detectors scattered through the plane that would detect PROBLEM signals (not just ANY signals). It should be possible to determine scientifically what WOULD be the problem signals if they were present, and then to design detectors to detect that. It’s the lack of any such detectors (that I am aware of) which is keeping this purely in the realm of speculation (or at best “laboratory” tests and “suspected” reports) on both sides.

  • Andy Big Bear at 6:38pm June 05, 2013

    Having been on one of those NASA teams, I think the part we are leaving out is what are the gains that can be had from allowing personal electronics on planes. We advocated the Newton to help with pre, post and inflight pilot duties over twenty five years ago. Now we finally have the iPad in the cockpit doing exactly what we predicted it would and that coincides with some of the safest air travel years on record. So, what are the opportunity costs of hindering technology adoption when the problems with RF interference can be remediated, quite easily.

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