Tablets on a Plane

Curtis Franklin Jr., Executive Editor | 12/30/2011 | 49 comments

Curtis Franklin Jr.
One of the first things you learn in this modern life is that rules and regulations don't have to make sense. Not that making sense is a bad thing; it's just not required. For an example, let's look at the government regulations and airline rules governing the use of mobile electronic devices on airplanes.

We've heard a lot about this issue lately, but the source of the stories and the "evidence" used to support each side of an ongoing debate are sources more of entertainment than edification. First, the actor Alec Baldwin was kicked off a commercial flight for refusing to stop playing "Words With Friends" on his mobile device after the flight attendant asked him to turn it off. Now, there's no question that he violated FAA rules about device use (and obeying the orders of a flight crew member), so the airline's right to toss him off the plane isn't in question. The question comes in the justification for the rules themselves.

Airplane manufacturer Boeing offered evidence to support the takeoff and landing ban. It seems straightforward enough: If using a device could cause everyone on the plane to die, then it shouldn't be used. Then again, maybe things aren't so cut-and-dried.

While we were still digesting the news about Baldwin's apparent death wish in the sky, word came that American Airlines pilots are cleared to use iPads in flight -- even during takeoff and landing. While the WiFi functionality must be turned off, other functions can still be used in a program the airline says will promote safety and efficiency. This has led any number of folks to ask why the same devices that promote safety in the cockpit cause death and destruction in coach.

One of the people asking that question is Nick Bilton of The New York Times. He had a lab test the RF emissions from an Amazon Kindle. They found that the emissions were negligible -- lower than the emissions from some devices (like a portable voice recorder) that are allowed during takeoff and landing. Hmmm.

The fact is that any electronic device, if it's not properly maintained and functioning, can emit RFI (radio frequency interference). While the navigation systems of commercial airplanes are shielded against RFI, there exists a theoretical possibility that a broken device could cause an issue. Ultimately, though, it comes down to risk assessment and mitigating factors. Right now, the FAA has decided that the mitigating factors don't outweigh the risks. I suspect that their calculus will change in the next year, or that they'll come up with new reasons to require passengers to keep the devices turned off until the airplane has climbed above 10,000 feet.

For CIOs charged with keeping a mobile workforce plugged in, it means that there's going to be a half hour or so at either end of a flight when the employee is just not connected. You might suggest that the employee use the time to read something on paper, meditate to lower stress and blood pressure, or get to know the passenger seated only millimeters from his elbow. It's just the cost of modern-day air travel.

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The_Phil   Tablets on a Plane   4/28/2013 10:27:16 AM
Re: I was wondering
It's not supposed to cause interference in Airplane mode. The thing is, the crew cannot take time to make sure everyone is actually in AM, so they tell you to turn them off completely.
Taimoor Zubair   Tablets on a Plane   4/28/2013 3:04:49 AM
I was wondering
Altough the task of switching off the electronic devices during take off and landing is a little annoying, it definitely isn't a deal-breaker , considering you can switch them back on 15 minutes into air. Now all these devices come with the airplane mode, i was wondering if it was safe to keep your phone or tablet on that mode during take-off? will it be a threat to the navigation system of the plane as well?
Henrisha   Tablets on a Plane   1/5/2012 5:31:13 AM
Re: I don't care about tablets, it is the cell phones
@Curtis - I can just imagine this scene, and it ain't pretty. I don't understand why people resort to yelling when they have bad reception. I mean, just hang up and call the other party again. No need to yell.
bnazarian   Tablets on a Plane   1/3/2012 5:06:48 PM
Re: excellent way to keep tablets and smartphones off
@Susan and Catalyst, I second that. I am neither chatty or cold. If someone wants to talk, I talk and enjoy the company, if they don't want to socialize, I read my magazines or watch/listen to airline provided entertainment.

I bet planes and airports could be made a lot safer by treating the passengers with more respect and consideration -- and it can be done while watching out for bad guys. The tension created in some airports and flights is like a psychological tactic to keep people in line, but it can backfire. When everyone is feeling surly and imposed upon the chances of having a simple altercation on board or in the airport misconstrued as a real security threat increase. I think security in air travel as a whole needs to be examined and overhauled by the government and airlines.
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CurtisFranklin   Tablets on a Plane   1/3/2012 3:16:20 PM
Re: I don't care about tablets, it is the cell phones
@JF-AMD, I agree that it's a security issue, but I think that it's a slightly different one that you mention. After the bomb that took down the PanAm plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, aviation security folks became very aware of altitude-triggered devices. Some of the thinking is that having the device ban in place makes it more difficult for a bomber to trigger a device in the hold via cell phone, text or other messaging means.

Why is the lower altitude important? Because it's a much more know-able location, and tends to be over more heavily-populated areas. I suspect that, if you scratch the surface on this one very hard, the altitude-detonation issue will finally bubble to the top.
LuFu   Tablets on a Plane   1/3/2012 1:43:34 PM
What's the big deal? Just turn it off.
Think about it. If there were no possible danger for RFI interference or other safety reasons, why would the airlines continue trying to get all passengers to shut down their phones, tablets, laptops, and any other electronic device? Life for flight attendants would be a lot easier than getting into an brouhaha with Alec Baldwin over Words with Friends or cruising the aisles telling people nicely to turn their phone OFF, ALL THE WAY OFF! Usually by the third time they are not so nice.
Da-11   Tablets on a Plane   1/3/2012 1:14:42 PM
Re: I don't care about tablets, it is the cell phones

@David; I don't mind everyone reaching for their cell phone as soon as the captain turns on the cell phone light; what really butters my briskets is how everyone instantaneously jumps into the isles ones the plane reaches the terminal causing a bottle neck effect and makes deplaning twice as long. "No Mr Three-rows-in-front-of-me I will not hand you your bag stowed in the over head compartment over my seat, just wait a damn minute, it's not like you're going to get off the plane any faster if you have your bag."   

Technocrat   Tablets on a Plane   1/3/2012 12:16:35 PM
Turn back Time: If Only for a Few Hours

Curtis, I do find this whole tablets on a plane topic a funny one for some reason. When actually is no laughing matter at all. It is quite simply a matter of life and death. It shows how dependent we have become on technology, how it has become a "universal utility" and supplants human interaction at every turn. 

Though I do not travel often, I think I could do without my gadgets for the hours it takes to arrive safely.  It appears few remember how dangerous the air travel was a few years ago and still is today. 

 So take the chance to turn back time and read a book, take a nap, or even talk to the person sitting next to you. 

JF-AMD   Tablets on a Plane   1/3/2012 12:00:22 PM
Re: I don't care about tablets, it is the cell phones
As a 150K+ miler each year, I have never understood the warning "you can only use computers if you can turn off the wifi" - unless they are charging you for wifi, then, magically, wifi is OK.

I think most people are frustrated by the inconsistency.  But what many do not understand is that having devices turned off during takeoff and landing is a security issue.  Not that they will interfere with the flight but that if there is an emergency announcement or people need to evacuate quickly, you don't want people not hearing the warning, not paying attention, or having cables plugged into the outlets that slow things down or trip people.

I too do not want to ever see the cell phone ban removed.  I do not want to sit next to a person yapping on the phone for 3 hours.

But the cell phone issue is also with the carriers.  If you have ever accidentally left your phone on, you know that they work on planes.  I have heard that, because you are passing towers so quickly, you get "leased" to each tower as you pass, and that allowing phones on planes would be a real issue for the cell carriers.  Anyone here know more about that?
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CurtisFranklin   Tablets on a Plane   1/3/2012 10:51:04 AM
Re: I don't care about tablets, it is the cell phones
@David, I don't mind the idea of people having cell phone conversations; what I mind is the idea of people yelling at their cell phones. If everyone was required to have some sort of hands-free device that stuck the speaker in their ear, then we'd have a shot at normal conversational levels.

Of course, I'm the one with the noise-isolating ear buds, so I'm just as happy tuning out most of what happens in flight...
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