What a turn-off: why your phone must be powered down on flights

Jul 26, 2013
What a turn-off: why your phone must be powered down on flights

It's a fact of life for anyone boarding a plane: all electronic devices need to be turned off during take-off and landing.

Most airlines have had this rule in place for more than a decade now, even though there has been no definitive documented instance in which passengers leaving their devices on caused a .

So why are we forced to stop listening to music or reading a Kindle during take-off and landing?

Many passengers simply ignore instructions, as shown by a recent US study, which found a third of passengers admit to not always turning off their devices during take-off and landing.

The US Federal Administration Authority (FAA) has responded to growing public to its "everything must be switched off" blanket rule by setting up a body to look into the issue and has started to slowly relax some rules.

Some US airline staff are now using iPads to replace paper flight manuals and get more information about their passengers.

Last month, British Airways became the first European airline to allow passengers to switch on their mobile phones just after landing.

What's the point of airplane mode?

Airplane mode or flight mode is a setting available on most electronic devices, such as eReaders and smartphones, which suspends many of the device's signal transmitting functions.

So why are we still asking passengers to completely power down all electronic devices before take-off and landing, especially when staff are allowed to use tablets?

The argument that electronic devices on a flight (commonly referred to in the industry as "portable electronic devices" or PEDs) have never resulted in a plane crash is beside the point.

As aviation expert and New York Times columnist Christine Negroni wrote recently, there actually have been reported cases of pilots reporting electronic devices interfering with on commercial flights – issues that subsequently disappeared when the flight crew spotted the offender(s).

In 2001, NASA put out a report compiling data on PEDs attributed to having anomalies with aircraft systems. The report concludes that: the data clearly indicates that not only were some events judged as having a critical effect on a system, but they also happened during critical states of flight specifically landings and take-offs.

In 2003, it was found that a charter pilot had called home during a flight and the call remained connected. The plane crashed at Christchurch Airport when the plane flew into the ground short of the runway. Eight people died, including the pilot.

The investigation that ensued from the New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission stated that the pilot's mobile phone may have interfered with the plane's navigation system.

In 2011, the ABC in the US reported on a confidential report from the International Air Transport Association STEADS program which uses data provided by the world's airlines.

The database showed 75 events over the past seven years in which interferences occurred that pilots and engineers think are linked to cellphones or other .

And even in airplane mode, a still emits some electromagnetic radiation, as do devices that can't connect to the internet, such as MP3 players.

A systems approach to aviation safety

Safety in commercial aviation is not to be viewed as an isolated aspect but as being part of a larger system made up of many interlinked avionics components.

For example, do you think those in-flight safety demonstrations and airplane seatbelts are useless? They're not.

New generation aircraft are more robust and better shielded to electromagnetic interference – disturbance affecting an electrical circuit due to either electromagnetic induction or radiation emitted by an external source – but how many passengers know how old the aircraft they're boarding actually is?

Another argument that usually comes up involves the use of in-flight Wi-Fi that is offered by certain airlines. If there's in-flight internet, why can't I use my phone on the plane?

But those systems are tested and verified according to the aircraft model and the overall system they're part of – and some don't make the cut.

There have been reports of electromagnetic interference testing for particular in-flight Wi-Fi systems that showed interference with aircraft avionics display units.

International inconsistencies

It is also worth pointing out that there are no set international rules on precisely when passengers are allowed to turn on their devices. Most US airlines only allow their use above 10,000 feet (about 3km in altitude).

When landing, some airlines prefer to wait until the plane reaches the gates (as most Australian airlines do) while in China passengers typically pull out their phones as soon as the wheels hit the runway.

In recent years, there have been several moves, as previously discussed, to allow more extensive use of electronics devices in-flight, and the discussion on the matter is still going.

Is your mobile phone going to take an entire aircraft down just because you texted your better half? Probably not.

But what you can potentially create is a distraction to the pilots and aircraft crew and if that happens at the wrong time (say during critical flight phases like take-off or landing) then it may have an impact on safety – is it really worth that risk?

Explore further: Flyers don't turn off phones in planes, survey finds

Related Stories

Many fliers refuse to turn off electronic gadgets

Dec 23, 2011

Gadget-dependent fliers are turning a deaf ear to flight attendants' instructions to turn off their devices during takeoff and landing, despite decades of government warnings, a USA TODAY investigation shows.

Pilots cleared to use iPad during takeoff, landing

Dec 15, 2011

Apple's iPad has been cleared for use by American Airlines pilots during takeoff and landing in a move that could make bulky flight bags crammed with manuals and charts a thing of the past.

FAA moving toward easing electronic device use

Jun 21, 2013

The U.S. government is moving toward easing restrictions on airline passengers using electronic devices to listen to music, play games, read books, watch movies and work during taxiing, takeoffs and landings.

Airline passengers may get a break on electronics

Mar 19, 2012

The government is taking a tentative step toward making it easier for airlines to allow passengers to use personal electronic devices such as tablets, e-readers and music players during takeoffs and landings.

Recommended for you

Hand out money with my mobile? I think I'm ready

22 hours ago

A service is soon to launch in the UK that will enable us to transfer money to other people using just their name and mobile number. Paym is being hailed as a revolution in banking because you can pay peopl ...

Quantenna promises 10-gigabit Wi-Fi by next year

Apr 16, 2014

(Phys.org) —Quantenna Communications has announced that it has plans for releasing a chipset that will be capable of delivering 10Gbps WiFi to/from routers, bridges and computers by sometime next year. ...

Tech giants look to skies to spread Internet

Apr 16, 2014

The shortest path to the Internet for some remote corners of the world may be through the skies. That is the message from US tech giants seeking to spread the online gospel to hard-to-reach regions.

Wireless industry makes anti-theft commitment

Apr 16, 2014

A trade group for wireless providers said Tuesday that the biggest mobile device manufacturers and carriers will soon put anti-theft tools on the gadgets to try to deter rampant smartphone theft.

Dish Network denies wrongdoing in $2M settlement

Apr 15, 2014

The state attorney general's office says Dish Network Corp. will reimburse Washington state customers about $2 million for what it calls a deceptive surcharge, but the satellite TV provider denies any wrongdoing.

Netflix's Comcast deal improves quality of video

Apr 14, 2014

Netflix's videos are streaming through Comcast's Internet service at their highest speeds in the past 17 months now that Netflix is paying for a more direct connection to Comcast's network.

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.5 / 5 (8) Jul 26, 2013
This is a BS propaganda piece. This is the 3rd cell phone/airplane piece I've seen in 24 hours.
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 27, 2013
Improperly functioning computing devices can have serious spurious emmissions that could interfere with sensitive systems. That's a fact. Properly functioning devices can also have spurious emmisions that can interfere with sensitive systems. That is also a fact. Device emmissions are not tested on every commercially produced device, only on a few samples. Another fact.

The rest of it is probabalistic. Does this device emit? Is that system sensitive? Is it a critical moment. The more devices that operate, the more likely there will be issues. That is also a fact (although the probability may be low)

You can call it BS because of what you BELIEVE, but you have no data or facts to back that up.

(BTW, I generally leave my ipod and tablet powered up)
Virtual Mage
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 27, 2013
Bad reporting. The Christchurch crash indicated that the pilot was likely distracted, with a remote possibility of medical incapacitation (He had moderately severe coronary artery disease, but would have had to had the event upon instrument approach, so that his death was caused by the accident). He basically slowly and steadily descended into the ground, rather than using the auto-pilot on a coupled approach. The glide slope indicator was too badly damaged in the crash to be tested for efficacy. From the report:
"...pilots own cellphone might have caused erroneous indications, perhaps without activating the 'G/S OFF' flag. The pilots cellphone was the closest to the aircraft equipment, and was the only one operating during the approach. The potential for electronic interference increases with the closeness of the cellphone to the G/S receiver, indicator and associated wiring. The susceptibility of the system to interference is not quantifiable..."
1 / 5 (2) Jul 29, 2013
Do we really need our electronic gadgets on all the time? Really? Can't we just turn them off for the few friggin' minutes during takeoff and landing without throwing a conniption fit?

The rules originated with engineers. And engineers know about the complex - and sometimes intractable - interplay of devices (most any electrical engineer who has ever designed a circuit will know about EMC issues). Why do the public have such a hard time trusting the experts? Instead they rely on their own ,completely uneducated, opinion.

Sometimes the willfull stupidity and arrogance of "Joe-average" boggles the mind.

More news stories

Under some LED bulbs whites aren't 'whiter than white'

For years, companies have been adding whiteners to laundry detergent, paints, plastics, paper and fabrics to make whites look "whiter than white," but now, with a switch away from incandescent and fluorescent lighting, different ...

Researchers uncover likely creator of Bitcoin

The primary author of the celebrated Bitcoin paper, and therefore probable creator of Bitcoin, is most likely Nick Szabo, a blogger and former George Washington University law professor, according to students ...

Continents may be a key feature of Super-Earths

Huge Earth-like planets that have both continents and oceans may be better at harboring extraterrestrial life than those that are water-only worlds. A new study gives hope for the possibility that many super-Earth ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...