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Do Gadgets Really Endanger Airplane Safety?

By Rich_Maloof Sep 12, 2012 2:54PM
Photo: Jay Silverman Productions/Getty ImagesThere’s a great exchange in an airplane scene from the pilot episode of The West Wing, the NBC series about a fictional presidency. The perpetually crabby communications director, Toby Ziegler, gets an important message from a stewardess and picks up his cell phone to respond.

STEWARDESS: You can’t use your phone until we land, sir.

TOBY: We’re flying in a Lockheed Eagle series L-1011. It came off the line 20 months ago and carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?

It’s a legitimate gripe — even more legit than working for the White House and still having to buy your own cell phone. There are plenty of us Tobys boarding flights every day and wondering how flipping on a phone, tablet or laptop could possibly result in a perilous loss of altitude.

As The Wall Street Journal recently noted in a related article, Federal Aviation Administration restrictions prohibiting the use of personal electronics during takeoff and landing date back to 1991, motivated by the concern among pilots and flight crews that such devices could affect navigation equipment or disrupt communications between the crew and ground control. But the suspected problems have never officially been verified, and the fact that countless travelers accidentally leave devices on or knowingly defy the rules outright suggests that the restrictions may have no basis in reality. The increasing number of pilots using iPads to replace hefty aircraft manuals may also be contributing to the FAA's weighing of convenience against questionable restrictions.

The truth is that nobody is really sure whether personal electronics pose a threat to aircraft safety. But the FAA aims to find out. Aware that the public is increasingly attached to electronics like a patient on a respirator, unwilling to pull the plug and have the world go dark, the FAA recently announced their plan to study whether portable electronics can be used safely during all phases of a flight, including takeoff and landing. And in an example of democracy that should make you proud to live in America, even if the political dialogue is not scripted by Aaron Sorkin, the Feds want to know what you think. On the site www.regulations.gov ("Your Voice in Federal Decision-Making"), the public has been invited to comment on the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices onboard aircraft. Note that the input of informed engineers and communication experts will probably be considered more seriously than those professing an urgent need to play Angry Birds as the landing gear goes up. Check back with The Daily Dose for the results of the FAA's findings, expected at the end of February 2013.

Photo: Jay Silverman Productions/Getty Images

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Sep 13, 2012 5:10AM
I hate to break it to all of you. Cell phones do not have any affect on the electronics aboard an aircraft. The reason for the "ban" is purely passenger disturbance. 
Sep 13, 2012 4:53AM

I heard the West Wing is a good show. I guess it is based in the 80'. The last Lockheed L-1011 was built in 1984. Cool plane. I was lucky enough to fly in one as a kid.


As to the main point about cell phone usage. I suspect the concern is about the non-compliant phones that may produce noise outside of the authorized spectrum thereby interfering with communication. I'm happy to turn my phone off during take off and landing if there is even a 1% chance it can cause a problem. 

Sep 13, 2012 4:36AM
Think about this logically: Cell phones not only transmit they receive RF signals from the towers. Furthermore TV stations, Satellites, public and private radio communication systems, wireless internet providers, ect are all transmitting and receiving RF signals. Granted the transmitted signals from their points of origin would be low in strength by the time it found its way into the airplane but in the case of a cell phone it is often still enough for the phone to work. So if RF energy really effected the plains on board systems, the plane and equipment would have to be shielded against the RF energy... One of the reasons that it is not an issue is due to the band width separation, the entire RF spectrum is divided up into groups each group has a buffer between them and the groups are licensed by the FCC for a specific use. Even a child's RC toy has to comply with bandwidth separation,
Sep 13, 2012 4:34AM
Sep 13, 2012 3:54AM
My brother-in-law is a charter pilot qualified in everything from KingAir 90's to Citation Bravos to G-5s.  I have flown right seat with him a number of times and he told me that the whole thing is a huge myth as far as their impact on aircraft avionics.

Look...these regulations were hatched in the infancy of cell phones when the telecommunications companies thought they were going to make a fortune on those seatback telephones.  Remember those?  You could swipe your credit card in a mag stripe reader and talk to anybody, anywhere, for a mere $5 a minute or whatever.

Follow the money.  Always.  F-o-l-l-o-w the money.

The seatback and console phones were a huge failure, in spite of the telecommunications companies lobbying (paying off) the legislators they owned.

So now it is time for some serious, scientific analysis which will show that cell phones mean diddly squat in terms of aircraft performance or safety.

Sep 13, 2012 3:51AM
Who wants to be the first to try a take off with all the cells phones and computers on? Not me!
Sep 13, 2012 3:51AM
doesnt it say on the back of most electronics this device does not interfer with aircraft/aircraft equipment? and this is tested in all other countries and verified as they dont have those policies?
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