Why the FAA Slow Walks Electronics in Planes

by Steve Wildstrom   |   June 26th, 2013

Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Aviation Administration was moving to relax rules banning passengers from using phones, tablets, and other electronics at the beginning and end of flights. But by Monday, the Journal was warning us, not so fast. It will be many months before the rules change and even then not all devices may be allowed on all planes.

Behold the thalidomide effect. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration denied approval to thalidomide, a drug designed to treat morning sickness in pregnant women, thus sparing the U.S. from the severe drug-induced birth defects that plagued Europe. The non-approval won heaps of praise for the agency and for Dr. Frances Kelsey, the examiner whose suspicions kept thalidomide off the U.S. market.  And it greatly strengthened the already strong belief of regulatory agencies that inaction is the safest course for bureaucrats who live in constant fear of political fallout if a decision goes bad.

That bias toward inaction and extreme caution is why the FAA will not spend the next year or so testing every conceivable device in every known type of commercial aircraft before inevitably concluding that the use of electronics is safe in all phases of flight. They will continue to ban the use of cell-type radios during takeoff and landing–you don’t want to take any chances during these critical phases of flight and these signals are orders of magnitude stronger than incidental emissions or even Wi-Fi transmissions.

We know the use of these devices is safe because it is going on all the time.  I don’t think my use of devices is atypical. I dutifully stow stow my phone and tablet for takeoff and landings, but they are in airplane mode,  not shut down. I leave them in airplane mode during the flight because there’s generally no reception above 10,000 feet anyway and leaving the radio on just drains the battery as the device searches for a network. So from beginning to end of any flight, there are undoubtedly dozens of devices powered up at all times.

The flight crew’s tablets are used in the cockpit, right on top of the instruments whose putative sensitivity to interference was the original reason for the ban.

The strongest case for allowing device use comes from the airlines themselves. All of the paper documentation traditionally stowed in the cockpit and carried in the pilots’ flight bags takes space, adds weight, and is an enormous pain for both the airline and the crew to keep up to date. All of this can be eliminated by using tablets, mostly iPads in practice, as electronic flight bags, which airlines are doing as fast as they can. American Airlines just became the first U.S. carrier to complete the transition, including its fleet of ancient MD-80s. And these tablets will be used in the cockpit, right on top of the instruments whose putative sensitivity to interference was the original reason for the ban.

Unlike the Transportation Safety Administration’s ill-fated attempt to allow small pocket knives and other objects back on planes, the new rules on electronics will eventually go into effect. There doesn’t appear to be any organized pushback to the idea. Cabin crews, whose opposition was instrumental to killing the TSA change, will doubtless be glad to stop enforcing rules they, along with everyone else, regard as pointless.

But all the incentives at regulatory agencies are to move slowly and cautiously. So even though the FAA is a sprinter compared to the glacial Federal Communications Commission, it will take many months before any change happens. In the meantime, you’ll just have to make do with the airline magazine, or Skymall, or, as I do, something on paper that you have brought along to amuse yourself for the first and last few minutes of a flight. It really won’t hurt you to do without your electronics for a few minutes.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Rich

    Steve, there’s something I never understood about this. Was the ban on passenger electronics originally put into effect for scientific reasons, i.e. RF engineers determined that the electronics posed a real risk? If yes, then the ban should have been rigorously enforced. If no, then why introduce it at all?

    What I’m saying is, airplane safety is too serious to play with, yet it always seemed that’s exactly what was happening. “We want you to turn off your electronics for safety but we’re only going to make the most cursory checks to see if you did.” Either it’s a problem or it isn’t. If it is, have severe consequences for anyone who doesn’t comply with the rules. If it isn’t, don’t initiate the ban in the first place.

    Do you understand this? Was it all just politics?

    • steve_wildstrom

      I don’t think there has ever been any proof that consumer electronics caused problems. If there was, the FAA has never produced the evidence. There have been some anecdotal claims of problems, but they have never moved beyond anecdote.

      I think it just started as one of those “excess of caution” things that the government is so fond of and just got enshrined in regulation. Once htere, it was very hard to dislodge.

      That said, it’s still a very good idea to stow you laptop safely during takeoff, landing, and even taxi. It has nothing to so with electronics, but a loose laptop is a nasty missile. I don’t want to see a MacBook Air or ThinkPad slicing through the air.

      • http://geekfun.com/ Erik S.

        It isn’t simply those pesky government regulators doing their thing. Aviation engineering, at least with respect to civilian aviation, is incredibly conservative and risk-adverse by the standards of “techies.”

        This is actually a good thing, as evidenced by all the people bitching about it while taking for granted the fact that they can travel in excess of 500 miles per hour at or above 30,000 feet for hours at a time, over and over again, over the course of their whole lives, without any reasonable fear of dying.

        • steve_wildstrom

          Point well taken.

    • Hosni

      @Rich – Sitting in an airport last December, I met a man headed to speak at an international conference on this subject. When I complained about the FAA’s rules banning electronic devices, he said that it was well-known among experts that smartphones and tablets don’t cause airplanes to crash — that the principle objection to them is the risk they pose during takeoffs and landings if something goes wrong: in which case they become flying projectiles that threaten the safety of other passengers. That’s why passengers are told not only to turn off their devices, but also to put them away.

      Personally, I would not like to be on a plane where passengers are permitted to talk on their phones for the same reason I don’t want to attend a movie or eat dinner while everyone in the vicinity is talking on the phone. It is disrespectful and obnoxious. It would also interfere with communication between airline staff and passengers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtdpJlZ07u4