Posted on Sep 25, 2011 in Health & safety, Tech & internet, Travel
I can imagine why you can’t have your phone sending a signal during flight, but why do you have to power down all electronics for takeoffs and landings? What difference does it make if I listen to music, or read an ebook, or my kid plays on his DS?
We’ve all heard it before: “…please ensure your seatback and tray tables are in the upright and locked position, and turn off all portable electronic devices.” While the seat thing makes sense to most of us, many still puzzle over why they have to turn off their Kindle, or iPod, or Nintendo DS and stare out the window, at the SkyMall magazine (full of useless, overpriced crap), or at the headrest in front of them for the first and last 20 minutes of a flight.
Well, here’s the deal.
First of all, don’t blame the airline. It’s the FAA’s guideline that they’re following, which says that passengers may turn on most portable electronic devices (PEDs) after the plane reaches 10,000 feet. The FAA says, “At a lower altitude, any potential interference could be more of a safety hazard as the cockpit crew focuses on critical arrival and departure duties.”
The usual reason given for this practice is that these devices could cause interference with the plane’s communications and navigation systems, which is not a huge deal if you’re flying a Cessna into Skunk Hollow, Montana (I just made that up, but you get the point) but flying a 747 into JFK… well, that could be rather bad if your game of Angry Birds caused the pilot to be off course by two miles.
Now, it’s rather unlikely that any sort of emission from portable electronics will cause interference to the shielded, digital systems of a modern airliner — even including things like cell phones and two way radios (like, say, the one that powers your laptop’s wifi… yes, wifi is a form of radio, just like your cell phone). However, unlikely and impossible are two different things. It’s also worth pointing out that some electronic devices, such as portable CD players, have been shown to cause interference in the systems of pre-1984 planes.
Why does this matter? Well, planes are expensive and airlines regularly keep them in service for 20-plus years, especially on less-profitable routes.. so that 737 you’re taking to Skunk Hollow might just date back to the Reagan administration.
Finally, although overall there is very little chance that your iPad or portable DVD player is going to cause the plane to suddenly plummet to earth in a trail of fire, the flight attendants cannot possibly examine every single device on the plane to determine if it’s a threat to the safety of the plane’s critical components. So it’s easier for them to just ask everyone to turn them off to be safe.
Cell phones, however, are another matter. Using a cell phone during a flight can get you in trouble with at least two federal agencies: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FCC has banned in-flight use of phones since 1991, because of the potential for interfering with ground networks. But even if the FCC revoked this rule, the FAA guidelines would still apply. (Needless to say, intentionally doing anything that might mess up any airplane’s critical systems may get you an audience with yet other federal agencies, such as the TSA, FBI and CIA.)
But the moment you touch down, you can fire up your phone. The FAA says, “Today, airlines may let passengers use newer-model cell phones in what’s called ‘airplane’ mode, which essentially disables the transmission function so they can’t make calls. This mode lets users do other things, such as play games, check an address or look at the phone’s calendar. FAA guidance does let airlines allow cell phone calls once the plane has landed and is taxiing to the gate.”
Hopefully, you can mark this one as mystery solved. And believe me, when I figure out what the deal is with the missing in-flight peanuts, I’ll let you know.
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