NYT: F.A.A. To Allow Passengers To Use MacBooks, iPads (But Not iPhones) During Takeoff And Landing

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A decade ago, playing a game of Tetris on a flight I was taking to Paris, I remember an irate stewardess telling me quite insistently to stop putting my fellow passengers in danger and turn off my Gameboy. I did, but not before asking her, “Isn’t it time someone Gameboy-proofed these airplanes?” She had nothing to say, because the absurdity was self-evident.

Ten years later, and airplanes still aren’t any more impervious to being taken down by a Gameboy, or an iPhone, or an iPad than they ever were… which is to say, they are just as impervious to being taken down by an electronic device as they ever were, which is technically “not at all” but, as far as the FAA is concerned, “quite likely indeed.”

Luckily, the stupidity may be about to come to an end, at least partially, with a couple of anonymous insiders at the Federal Aviation Administration telling The New York Times that the agency is under tremendous pressure to relax their rules regarding some types of devices during takeoff and landing.

The bad news is that the new regulations would only apply to reading devices like the iPad and Kindle: if your device is a phone, it would still have to be turned off at take-off and landing.

However, if you had a tablet, or a Kindle, you’d be good to go during any stage of takeoff or landing. The New York Times reports:

One member of the group and an official of the F.A.A., both of whom asked for anonymity because they were not allowed to speak publicly about internal discussions, said the agency was under tremendous pressure to let people use reading devices on planes, or to provide solid scientific evidence why they cannot.

As I wrote in 2011, travelers are told to turn off their iPads and Kindles for takeoff and landing, yet there is no proof that these devices affect a plane’s avionics. To add to the confusion, the F.A.A. permits passengers to use electric razors and audio recorders during all phases of flight, even though those give off more electronic emissions than reading tablets.

The F.A.A. declined to comment.

The absurdity of the F.A.A. regulation banning the use of mobile devices during take-off and landing is self-evident. Think about it: how many millions of smartphones and tablets don’t get completely powered down or put into Airplane Mode during take-off or landing every day? How many planes have they downed?

The answer, of course, is none. Then there is, of course, the fact that iPads are now helping pilots <a href=”http://www.cultofmac.com/220586/check-out-what-its-like-to-pilot-a-jet-with-an-ipad-in-the-cockpit-video/”>fly their planes</a>. Let’s hope that 2013 is the year in which the F.A.A. recovers its sanity again.

  • bdkennedy

    Many iPads have a cellular connection. What about those?

  • DrM47145

    I can’t tell you how many times I did not turn my 3G iPad off…
    As a matter of fact, I never turn it off, or put it in Flight-mode. My iPhone, I just put it on Flight-mode. I do about 70k to 100k miles a year, and so far I have never sent any planes down…
    I guess I’m a living proof that the FAA regulations are rubbish, and I am quite sure that 1) I am not the only one not turning them off; and 2) there are people flying much more and still not putting anybody at risk.

  • Times_n_Latte

    Just don’t let people talk on the phone during flights, for the love of all that is holy. Who wants to listen to strangers’ inane chatter while trapped in a sardine can?

  • jeffmarshall911

    There is little evidence that radio frequencies used for cellular communications has/will interfere with pilot control of a commercial aircraft. There is also little evidence that RF doesn’t. The difference between ~10 pax forgetting to shutoff the transmitters (i.e. Airplane Mode) of their device and ~100 intentionally keeping them on and trying to use them is significant. I wouldn’t want to be on the new plane chassis that has an unforeseen shielding issue resulting in impact to flight controls. RF is a tricky beast and most especially inside a metal tube.

    While I think that RF concerns can be solved by technology, IMHO this is more about passengers paying attention to their surroundings and the safety of other passengers during abrupt maneuvers. I would very much like to be able to read my Kindle or iPad during takeoffs and landings but I also don’t want to be the one struck on the back of the head with one flailing about the cabin during a take-off or landing emergency (when most incidents occur). As an example, USAirways into the Hudson went from the birds knocking out the engines to swimming in ~3 min 30 secs, it was ~1 min 30 secs from the overhead announcement of “brace for impact” to swimming (source: NTSB report). People messing with their devices is the last thing for flight crews to worry about when it really matters.

    The FAA are an incredibly sane group when it comes to passenger safety, and I’m very satisfied about that. If you want to understand how civilians and professional react to true emergencies, read The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley for insights. Maybe you’ll read the in-flight safety card your next flight.

  • DrM47145

    […] The difference between ~10 pax forgetting to shutoff the transmitters (i.e. Airplane Mode) of their device and ~100 intentionally keeping them on and trying to use them is significant. I wouldn’t want to be on the new plane chassis that has an unforeseen shielding issue resulting in impact to flight controls. RF is a tricky beast and most especially inside a metal tube.[…]

    Ok. Now you got me thinking. But if there is really little evidence, and the scientific rationale to be worried is sound, how the hell hasn’t this been thoroughly studied?

  • Steven Quan

    Funny that they will allow tablets like iPad to be used during takeoff. The very first tablet I ever bought was a 7″ Galaxy Tab and it had full calling capability (not wifi or VOIP but regular calling with SIM card). My tablet was no different from a cell phone. This puts the flight attendants in a quandary immediately because now they have to ascertain whether or not a device is capable of interfering with flight controls. Not everyone uses an iPad, Macbook, or iPhone, there are other devices out there.

    There is little evidence that radio frequencies used for cellular communications has/will interfere with pilot control of a commercial aircraft. There is also little evidence that RF doesn’t. The difference between ~10 pax forgetting to shutoff the transmitters (i.e. Airplane Mode) of their device and ~100 intentionally keeping them on and trying to use them is significant. I wouldn’t want to be on the new plane chassis that has an unforeseen shielding issue resulting in impact to flight controls. RF is a tricky beast and most especially inside a metal tube.

    As an example, USAirways into the Hudson went from the birds knocking out the engines to swimming in ~3 min 30 secs, it was ~1 min 30 secs from the overhead announcement of “brace for impact” to swimming (source: NTSB report). People messing with their devices is the last thing for flight crews to worry about when it really matters.

    The FAA are an incredibly sane group when it comes to passenger safety, and I’m very satisfied about that. If you want to understand how civilians and professional react to true emergencies, read The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley for insights. Maybe you’ll read the in-flight safety card your next flight.

    How could the FAA be an incredibly sane group when they mandate devices like cell phones to be turned off when there’s no evidence that they can create a disturbance? And why hasn’t the FAA commissioned any studies about this? I don’t think that’s very responsible for an incredibly sane group.

    How can you say there’s a significant difference with 10 people forgetting to turn off their devices vs 100 people keeping them on? What studies are you getting your information from?

  • sjordi

    Frankly,
    I doubt that they will really allow laptops and tablets during take off and landing. Why? Because in case of a problem, those devices will fly around the cabin and hurt passengers.
    Some airlines are even thinking about allowing only soft paper books, not hardback ones, for that same reason.
    Now it’s another question not related to frequencies, but just being hurt by hard shell flying objects.

  • DrM47145

    […] How could the FAA be an incredibly sane group when they mandate devices like cell phones to be turned off when there’s no evidence that they can create a disturbance? And why hasn’t the FAA commissioned any studies about this? I don’t think that’s very responsible for an incredibly sane group.

    How can you say there’s a significant difference with 10 people forgetting to turn off their devices vs 100 people keeping them on? What studies are you getting your information from? […]

    Steven, just because there is no evidence to prove that something is unsafe, it doesn’t mean that it is safe. I don’t know about the aviation industry, but in the medical field, this happens all the time, and be grateful it happens. There are controversies in this somehow new approach, called “Evidence Based Medicine”, because you don’t need a randomized controlled study to prove certain things, but the rationale and the proposed approach is perfectly valid.

    For example: There is no evidence that X drug could be teratogenic (affect pregnancies causing malformations), and because of that, the drug is contraindicated in pregnancies, just because the risk is unacceptable. It’s not because of a high risk, it’s because of the cost of it. Though there may be a low probability, the morbimortality is unacceptably high. Same thing in the aviation industry (I guess): people would be quite pissed off if after a terrible accident an FAA spokesman would happily come out and say: “Well… since we didn’t know what could happen, we just allowed it. And guess what, now we can say it is not safe to use cellphones during take-offs and landings. We feel sorry for the lives that were lost, but we are glad we now have the evidence we needed.”

    Summarizing: it is perfectly safe and sound to be cautious about what we don’t know when we have the scientific rationale calling for conservatism.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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