Electronics on Planes

January 8th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

What’s the real danger of not powering off before takeoff?

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The Responsibility Project

By now, you’re likely accustomed to flight attendants insisting your phone and other portable electronic devices be powered down before takeoff – and you might also remember the consequences of leaving them on. Most notably, there was actor Alec Baldwin’s ejection from an American Airlines flight in 2011 for playing Words With Friends online while parked at the gate. And there have even been arrests made in Texas, Chicago and New York due to passengers using phones or iPads during takeoff.

But if you’ve ever wondered about the real dangers of using an electronic device on a plane, you’re not alone. After the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it would be reviewing its policies on electronic devices, and Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill called on the FAA to relax its “anachronistic policies” for a public that is “growing increasingly skeptical of prohibitions,” New York Times technology reporter Nick Bilton addressed the topic in his Bits column.

What’s the real hazard of e-devices on planes? If authorities don’t loosen the rules, Bilton said, it will be that “one passenger harms another, believing they are protecting the plane from a Kindle, which produces fewer electromagnetic emissions than a calculator.” After all, Bilton writes, an annual report issued by NASA that compiles cases involving electronic devices on planes shows that none of these episodes have produced scientific evidence that a device can harm a plane’s operation.

Where some FAA representatives maintain that personal electronics can put out enough electromagnetic emissions to disrupt a flight, pilots are now allowed to use iPads in the cockpit instead of paper flight manuals. “The agency has no proof that electronic devices can harm a plane’s avionics,” Bilton writes, “but it still perpetuates such claims, spreading irrational fear among millions of fliers.”

Of course, the FAA has been operating by a “better safe than sorry” standard; rather than test each device separately before takeoff, it has simply required passengers to turn them off. But a well-educated public, now armed with evidence that devices may not be dangerous, might now be divided: obey a not-yet-unproven rule, or secretly disobey and leave electronics running. And of course, there will be the vigilantes, as Bilton notes, like the man who punched a teenager in 2010 because he didn’t turn off his phone.

Until the FAA comes to a conclusion, what’s your policy on obeying the current rule?