Re-examining a misguided in-flight electronics ban

In a world where we can have “face time” with friends and family miles and miles away, read books without ever turning a page and listen to a song without the risk of scratching a CD or record, it can be hard to tolerate those places where portable electronic devices (PED) are not welcome. Planes are among these dreaded places. If you’ve been on a flight recently, you have likely been repeatedly reminded that PED use is not allowed during certain portions of a flight, and cell phones are not allowed at all.

Just prior to the Aug. 28, 2012, iPhone 5 release, the FAA announced that it is forming a government-industry group comprised of technology manufacturers, plane makers, pilots and flight attendants to study the current policies and procedures regarding passenger use of PEDs on airplanes. Specifically, the group will study and analyze whether PEDs can be used safely in-flight without causing interference or compromising the flight safety and, if so, when they can be used. The FAA states it is not considering lifting the ban on in-flight cell phone use; however, the FAA will likely leave this decision up to each airline.

There is no evidence to date that either proves or disproves that cell phones and electronics on airplanes pose any danger. The initial ban on using electronic devices on aircraft followed a 1961 study by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), which looked at reports showing that PEDs had potentially interfered with onboard electronic equipment. Further studies by the RTCA, one in the mid-1980s and another in the 1990s, found that, while such a risk was extremely low overall, it was highest during critical phases of the flight such as at takeoff and landing. These studies were not based on accident or incident reports, which would have been investigated by the NTSB. Rather, they were based on reports submitted to NASA in the 1990s by pilots who reported that certain problems seemed to go away after they requested that all electronics be turned off. What was missing was a controlled study to know whether the problems in question would have gone away on their own if the pilots had simply changed position or location, which, of course, they were doing as they were flying. The FCC had the final say in the matter and banned the use of wireless devices starting in 1991. In 2000, Boeing attempted to replicate the findings from the NASA reports and concluded there was no way it could prove interference, and then in 2007, the FCC instituted a permanent ban.

Finally, there are concerns about cell phones being related to terrorist acts. Some have expressed concern about the potential danger of cell phones being used to conceal dangerous items, serve as weapons or bombs or trigger explosive devices. Today, every passenger and every bag going on an airplane must be tested and cleared of any explosives or residue. These concerns are no longer a danger as long as the TSA and other law enforcement agencies do their jobs.

There has never been an accident or crash attributed to the interference of electronic devices. I applaud Ray LaHood and the FAA for re-examining the use of PEDs during flight, but I believe the study should include the use of cell phones in-flight. Modern aircraft wiring and instruments are required to be properly shielded from errant electric signals, pulses, arcing and static and lightning strikes. A recent NY Times Article, discussing the study, claims that even pilots are using iPads inside the cockpits to replace their aircraft manuals. I am anxiously waiting to hear the findings of the FAA government-industry group early next year.