It’s about time to reconsider airline gadget guidelines

Tony Bradley
3 September, 2012
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Did you know that if you turn on your mobile phone during takeoff or landing on a commercial airline flight the engines will spontaneously combust and the plane will drop from the sky like a brick? No? Well, that’s because I just made that up and it’s completely false.

However, a similar falsehood has been dictating airline gadget policy for years, and it’s equally frustrating. The myth is that using your phone or other electronic gadgets will interfere with the planes instruments.

So, the guy who stopped off at the overpriced airport gift shop and picked up a paperback copy of John Grisham’s latest novel is free to read from wheels up to wheels down. But, if you have that same novel downloaded to your Kindle or iPad or other device, you are prohibited from reading it until the plane reaches 10,000 feet, and you have to shut it down when the plane descends past 10,000 feet again during landing.

The US FAA policy, however, is now being reviewed, and may be revised to be a tad more lenient. Allowing the use of electronic devices during takeoff and landing would allow people to be much more productive—especially on shorter flights where it seems like the entire trip is the ascent and descent, with very little time at cruising altitude.

There are a couple guys who are experts when it comes to myths whose opinions I trust—the MythBusters, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. The MythBusters crew put this assertion to the test and proved that it is simply not true…more than six years ago.

What the MythBusters did find is that trying to use a mobile phone while flying 900km per hour at 30,000 feet wreaks havoc on the cell tower system on the ground. At that speed and altitude, the call attempts to bounce off of many cell towers simultaneously, which is why the US FCC banned cellular connections in flight—not the FAA—and why actually using the cell phone to make voice calls is still not open for debate.

But, even if we accept that the various signals emitted from our electronic devices might cause a problem, they invented this thing called Airplane Mode a long time ago. Flight attendants like to say that all of your devices must be completely powered off, and that airplane mode is unacceptable. But, the whole point of Airplane Mode is to literally shut down all wireless communications that might in any way interfere with the aircraft (if that were true to begin with) to allow them to be used safely in flight.

So, if the guy sitting next to me is reading that Grisham paperback he just paid too much for, and I’m reading the same book on my iPad with Airplane Mode enabled, is there any difference to the airplane or flight crew? No. And, that is why the US FAA is finally taking another look at the antiquated rules.

The real problem the FAA, airlines, and flight crews will have to struggle with, though, is that many people are technically inept. They may not know how to enable Airplane Mode. They might think they’ve disabled wireless communications when they haven’t. The burden can’t be on the flight attendants to go from seat to seat and show people how their devices work and how to use them properly.

But, thanks to the MythBusters we know that it’s really not a problem unless you try to call your Mum and let her know you’ll be arriving soon. So, let’s expedite this US FAA review process and get some more reasonable gadget rules in place.

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