Will The FAA Relax Electronic Device Restrictions? - InformationWeek
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Ed Hansberry
Ed Hansberry

Will The FAA Relax Electronic Device Restrictions?

Longstanding rules that require you to turn off your iPads and Kindles during airplane takeoff and landing may have no basis in science.

Alec Baldwin recently made a fool of himself by refusing to put down his iPad during takeoff so the plane full of dozens of other people could make it to their destination on time. The rules of stowing electronics during takeoff and landing aren't made by airlines, rather the Federal Aviation Administration. The rules seem a little absurd for many devices. However, given FAA bureaucracy, even if it is reviewing the issue, don't expect to be allowed to read an ebook while taxiing, taking off, or landing.

The rules seem to have been put in place when these devices came into use. No studies existed on how these devices could interfere with the plane's electronics. It seems the rules remain in place because, well, just because.

I'm not sure exactly how the aircraft is more susceptible to radio interference during takeoff and landing as opposed to when it is at 30,000 feet, flying at nearly 600 mph. While in the air, not only can you use your device, the airline would like you to enable the Wi-Fi radio and pay to use the plane's network. Of course, the flight crew is allowed to, and does, use devices like the iPad during takeoff and landing.

What is the rationale here? Do they think that if there's is a problem in flight there is plenty of time for the pilot to rush back from the cockpit, have everyone turn their devices off, then rush back and pull the plane out of its iPhone-induced uncontrolled nose-dive?

According to Nick Biltin's blog in the New York Times, tests showed a Kindle emits an extremely low amount of radiation. One electronic device allowed by the FAA is the electronic voice recorder. It, too, was tested and found to emit more radiation than a Kindle. When in flight mode, I find it hard to believe that tablets, smartphones, MP3 players, and other e-readers would emit any more than a Kindle does.

Even if these rules were shown--beyond a reasonable doubt--to be of no benefit whatsoever, it would likely take years for the FAA to actually lift the ban. Until it does, though, turn your devices off and stick them in the seatback pocket in front of you. Arguing with the crew about the absurdity of the rule won't do you any good, and the guy next to you has a connecting flight to make.

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User Rank: Apprentice
1/9/2012 | 12:59:54 PM
re: Will The FAA Relax Electronic Device Restrictions?
All the technical comments below are basically on the mark. However, there are a few important points I'd like to make.

First, it is true that we don't want an aircraft filled with untested high-power emmitters. It is quite simple to demonstrate how a handheld CB or Amatuer radio can cause interference with aircraft systems when they transmit. So, they are properly banned and have been for years.

The second major category. Is low power transmitters. These transmitters are found in such consumer electronics as cell phones and other devices with wireless (wi-fi) transmitters. I doubt these devices pose any hazard whatsoever to the safety of a modern aircraft. Every reported incident I've read on the supposed interference caused by these devices has failed to defnititvely establish cause and effect. For example, we occassionally hear of pilots reporting interference which stopped when the flight attendents instructed one or more passengers to turn their devices off. Maybe it was those devices or maybe some other form of interference stopped at about the same time.

Low power transmitters such as those in cell phones and wireless (wi-fi) devices do not transmit a signal of sufficient magnitude to interefere with aircraft systems. The electronic systems in a modern aircraft are extensively tested to withstand interference from a broad range of much higher power devices across the entire frequency spectrum. This is precisely why the electronics boxes and wiring are very well shielded and grounded. As evidence, on only needs to consider the dense electromagnetic environment that the aircraft flies through on a regular basis. Just the emissions from the radios, radars, and microwave towers around a typical airport would be more than enough to bring down an airliners if they were even remotely as succeptible to interference as the FAA would have us believe.

Look at it this way. If all the devices that the FAA fears so much were actually capable of causing interference, do you really think an aircraft would ever get airborne? How many of your fellow passengers do you think actually switch those devices "completely off" before sticking them in their pocket / case / seatback. I submit the vast majority do not. They may place them in airplane mode (a reasonable precaution until we know more) but I suspect most just hit the pause button and wait until the flight attendent sits down and leaves them to their own devices - pun intended.

No, this is simply a matter of the FAA being unwilling to budget for the testing necessary to prove that small electronic devices can safely be used on the aircraft. Their current methodology would be to test and certify every device for compliance. That isn't necessary at all. They should simply develop standards to which manufacturers would build and certify their devices and then allow those to be used onboard. A plainly visible indicator or sticker of some type would allow simple verification onboard. The FAA is simply shirking their duties in this regard hoping the airlines will step in and take on the certification task. That won't happen due to the byzintine rules around the process and the consequent high cost to any airline that might be tempted to try.

As an experienced airline pilot I feel safe assuring you that this is a problem that is blown completely out of proportion by the FAA (as a CYA move) and one that mearly makes easy fodder for the occassional narcissistic flight attendant. Take my advice. Feel free to use your cell phone, kindle, ipad, ipod, etc. Just do it discretely and, to avoid disrupting the flight, follow that overbearing flight attendent instructions - for now.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/2/2012 | 7:10:18 PM
re: Will The FAA Relax Electronic Device Restrictions?
Very insightful comments on here. I was commenting recently about having to turn my iPod off during landings and takeoffs. I still think though it may be time to update these regulations to take into account devices like the Kindle, iPod, etc. to see how much radiation they actually emit and whether or not to MaxAB's point they could have any impact.
Brian Prince, InformationWeek/Dark Reading Comment Moderator
User Rank: Apprentice
1/1/2012 | 3:26:43 PM
re: Will The FAA Relax Electronic Device Restrictions?
I am a Computer Scientist and as well hold both an Extra Class Amateur Radio License (N3GWG) and an FCC Commercial License.

Let us start out with a basic idea in electronics, every device with chips or a microprocessor can reasonably be considered both a transmitter and as well receiver. In other words, all computers, phones, etc..., are "RF emitters".

As an Amateur Radio Operator I am well aware that many times we are blamed for when a well made Amateur Radio (performing to specifications the FCC says it must meet with perfection) interferes with a neighbor's TV. Suffice it to say that in most cases this is due to the fact that TV fails to properly shield itself from receptivity of external signals it might otherwise hear. This lack of shielding, also means it is acting as a transmitter of RF energy also (try operating your laptop next to an FM radio that is on and listen to the noise it hears). Thus the concern that MaxAB is referencing is not really all that out of the realm of possibility.

Don't believe me? Next time you are in your car place your mobile phone next to your GPS or near your FM radio and have someone call it, or even place the phone next to an olde tube monitor, or perhaps even an LCD monitor in your home or office, and watch what happens when the cellular phone rings. This is basically what can happen on a plane, only you are talking about 200 cell phones not one.

Moreover, when you go higher up in the air (think of a helicopter), the higher up you are the more you see of a city, the same is true of radio frequency waves. This can turn out to be important as well in terms cellular phone towers. If you are at say 300 feet in the air it is conceivable that more than just 2 or 3 (the normal number of cell towers that hear your phone when driving) will hear your phone, possible 50 or that, and this can confuse the cellular phone towers and their system quite definitely.

I am by no means object to the FAA looking at how these rules can be modernized to allow for the usage of high technology devices in airplanes, but, it is worthy of notation that a real issue does exist, and that some of the aircraft in use today are quite aged and will not be as ready for new technology as we might otherwise presume. Now, this does not stop the FAA from saying "we are making a new rule concerning the inflight operation of electronics devices and their usage as it applies strictly to Boeing model XYZ aircraft only, because Boeing model XYZ aircraft has been designed to allow for this.", they certainly could do that too.

Very Respectfully Submitted,

Stuart B. Tener
Computer Scientist

User Rank: Apprentice
12/30/2011 | 4:31:50 PM
re: Will The FAA Relax Electronic Device Restrictions?
I won't regurgitate MaxAB's comments; they are very accurate an valuable to understanding the difference between electronic technicalities and safety of flight.

I was an airline safety manager and a participant in RTCA/SC-202 and a supervisor in the extensive testing of Portable Electronic Devices (PED) on my airline's fleet, I am aware of the contradiction to Mr. Hansberry's assertion that "No studies existed on how these devices could interfere with the plane's electronics. It seems the rules remain in place because, well, just because." Mr. Hansberry wasn't invited to these test, but the FAA was.

I will only, that until folks began dragging all sorts of emitters on to the airplanes, passengers had very little participation in the safe conduct of their flight. Now they have an opportunity and a responsibility to be a part of the safety systems designed into the airplane they and hundreds of others are depending on for their life's longevity.

So, Mr. Hansberry, I appreciate your technical perspective, and more so your conclusion that we should all "...turn [y]our devices off and stick them in the seatback pocket in front of you." I will note that laptops must be stowed either in an overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you (pardon my flashback to when I authored those seatback info-cards).

Since you do intend to lend your hand in keeping your flight safe, I will be glad to sit in the seat next to you. If any of your readers have decided to scoff at this safety provision, please email or text me prior to boarding a flight I am booked on. I will be glad to pay the re-booking fee to NOT sit next to them!

Best Regards,

P.S. You and your readers may enjoy a blog in the Scientific American; 10 Facts about Portable Electronics and Airplanes, By Larry Greenemeier, dated 12DEC2011: http://blogs.scientificamerica...

User Rank: Apprentice
12/30/2011 | 3:30:59 PM
re: Will The FAA Relax Electronic Device Restrictions?
I am an aero engineer and so have, at least, a little insight. There are several points to be made to help understand this topic...

1.) The FAA's ONE job is the safety of the flying public.

2.) FAA regulations are laws; not suggestions. (which you alluded to when suggesting Mr. Baldwin should have held his tongue)

3.) Airliners have literally miles of wire running through them to send/receive signals between all of the various control functions and computers. That wire is essentially miles of antenna. Every electrical circuit has at least two conducting wires. The basic precautions one takes to reduce susceptibility to electronic radiation is to twist each circuit's pair of wires together AND wrap them in a fine, woven, wire mesh shielding (like a sweater) around the wire pairs. The twisting adds significant length to each wire, which adds significant weight, and the shielding simply adds even more weight. The weight is significant because of the aforementioned miles of wire. One of the primary design trades in designing anything that flies is weight versus fuel burn. More weight equals more fuel burn which, in turn, equals higher ticket prices. Because many of the planes flying today predate the personal electronic device explosion, it is not likely that many aircraft manufacturers twisted and shielded their wires because of the exceedingly large weight increase that would have come with that feature at a time when there was no recognized need for it. So, regardless of how little radiation the electronic devices may emit, there are plenty of aircraft out there that may not have the necessary design precautions built into them to avoid receiving it.

4) The most dangerous times for malfunctions to happen in the course of a flight is during takeoff and landing; because the plane is close to the ground and the pilots have significantly less time to adjust. At 35,000 feet you are nearly 7 miles up and can fall for a while until the pilots figure out what to do; a little disconcerting, but not deadly. Encounter a malfunction at a couple of hundred feet up and you might visit the neighbor's living room at ~200 miles per hour.

To summarize, the FAA has to take into account ALL of the aircraft in use today. Because of their complexity AND the safety concerns involved, it takes many years to get a new airplane design to market. Rewiring a passenger airplane is also a major undertaking. In contrast, it takes only months for new electronic devices to come to market. The airplane industry just hasn't caught up to the electronic revolution yet and, until it does in approximately 30 years (rough service time for many aircraft), any rule changes will have to be made VERY carefully. Personally, since I am also an occasional member of the flying public, I greatly appreciate the FAA taking its time to understand the problem before making changes.
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