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Time to Review FAA Gadget Policies 292

Posted by samzenpus
from the please-leave-on-electronic-devices dept.
Nick Bilton, Lead Technology writer for The New York Times Bits Blog, called the FAA to complain about its gadget policies on flights and got an unexpected reply. Laura J. Brown, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, said that it might be time to change some of those policies and promised they'd take a “fresh look” at the use of personal electronics on planes. From the article: "Yes, you read that correctly. The F.A.A., which in the past has essentially said, 'No, because I said so,' is going to explore testing e-readers, tablets and certain other gadgets on planes. The last time this testing was done was 2006, long before iPads and most e-readers existed. (The bad, or good, news: The F.A.A. doesn’t yet want to include the 150 million smartphones in this revision.)"
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Time to Review FAA Gadget Policies

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  • by SultanCemil (722533) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @07:15PM (#39399013)
    Obviously, electronic devices can't bring down a plane. Millions of fliers every week "forget" to turn off their devices, and nary a plane goes down. Can common sense finally prevail? Arbitrary rules reduce respect for the necessary ones. For example: No headphones during take-off? Makes perfect sense - take-off is one of the most sensitive times of the flight. If someone needs to yell directions, you need to hear them. Reading a book on your Kindle? Not so much.

    Having said that, of course, if my plane is going down, I'd probably take off my headphones. YMMV.
    • by Spy Handler (822350) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @07:27PM (#39399107) Homepage Journal
      Nobody said electronic devices can "bring down" a plane. The issue has always been interference with a plane's navigation system. There have been documented cases where a jetliner mysteriously lost function in electronic systems, only to regain it after the flight crew went around turning off everyone's electronic gadgets. Some of them can emit quite a bit of RF.
      • by green1 (322787) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @07:36PM (#39399155)

        citation please?
        I've never read a documented case like that, I'm genuinely curious.

        • by chrb (1083577) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @07:47PM (#39399221)

          NASA anonymous reporting system.... "So what would you think if you were the B777 pilot who's radio communication with air traffic control was interrupted by a passenger's cell phone call? Or if you were the captain in command of a B747 that unexpectedly lost autopilot after takeoff and did not get it back until 4, count 'em four passengers turned off their portable electronic devices?" http://christinenegroni.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/handhelds-on-airplanes-bigger-problem.html [blogspot.co.uk]

          "In 2007, one pilot recounted an instance when the navigational equipment on his Boeing 737 had failed after takeoff. A flight attendant told a passenger to turn off a hand-held GPS device and the problem on the flight deck went away." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/18/business/18devices.html [nytimes.com]

          • by 0123456 (636235) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @07:53PM (#39399247)

            So what would you think if you were the B777 pilot who's radio communication with air traffic control was interrupted by a passenger's cell phone call? Or if you were the captain in command of a B747 that unexpectedly lost autopilot after takeoff and did not get it back until 4, count 'em four passengers turned off their portable electronic devices?

            I would think that Boeing did a piss-poor job of protecting the aircraft against interference.

            Clearly terrorists are stupid when they try to sneak bombs on board; a dozen of them should bring iPads and iPhones onto a flight and turn them all on at the same time during takeoff.

          • by dgatwood (11270) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @08:18PM (#39399373) Journal

            Radio communication with ATC is an analog band just above FM radio, and involves shielded cables running from a shielded radio to one or more antennas located outside the body of the aircraft (which is a Faraday cage at those frequencies unless one of the doors is open, and probably even then).

            Based on that, I'd rate the odds of a cell phone call interfering with an ATC call just south of the odds of getting hit by a meteor while dancing the Macarena. Actually, scratch that. It's more like the odds of dancing the Macarena creating a statistically significant increase in your risk of getting hit by a meteor.

            The problem with using incident reports as a means of determining whether something is safe or not is that correlation is not causation. The fact that the autopilot came back online after four people shut off their laptops does not mean that those laptops caused the failure. It means that the autopilot came back on after those laptops were disabled. In much the same way, it rained in the SF Bay Area after I used the bathroom this morning, so obviously my toilet causes rain.... It's a lot more likely that the autopilot kicked out due to a transient problem in some sensor, a frozen pitot tube that thawed out, a power surge that caused a self-resetting circuit interruptor to temporarily shut off power to a critical piece of equipment, or some other temporary problem that went away on its own.

            However, it is human nature to look for and see patterns even when they don't exist. Thus, after years of being told that electronics can cause planes to misbehave, people immediately assume that somebody's MP3 player is at fault whenever something unexplainable happens on an aircraft. The flight crew tells people to shut down their electronics. After a while, things start working again, so the flight crew then assumes that those electronics caused the problem when the evidence supporting that conclusion is flimsy at best and nonexistent at worst. That doesn't prevent it from being reported as an incident, though.

            If you really want useful data, the flight crew needs to tell those passengers to turn that equipment back on and see if the problem recurs. If it does, then it probably contributed to the problem. If it does not, it probably did not. The problem is that nobody wants to do this because they're too afraid that turning it back on might bring the plane down. And this is why incident reports are nearly useless as a means of determining safety.

            • by ceoyoyo (59147)

              "The problem with using incident reports as a means of determining whether something is safe or not is that correlation is not causation. The fact that the autopilot came back online after four people shut off their laptops does not mean that those laptops caused the failure."

              Ugh. No. It's that the plural of anecdote is not data. If you actually collected enough thorough incident reports to count as data and narrowed your question enough to actually detect a correlation, say between a particular model of

          • by green1 (322787)

            Interesting, but it brings up more questions than it answers. It says there were approximately 75 cases in the past 7 years where a pilot reported something suspicious that *may* have been the result of personal electronics interfering with systems. But no information on any followup to see if that was actually the case.

            I'm not saying that there couldn't possibly be a link (though other articles from the same source [nytimes.com] do...) I'm just saying that it sounds like no real followup was ever done on those cases to

          • I don't know why you'd want a GPS running on a plane anyway, but aren't they receivers? Does anybody here know what and how much they emit?
            • by Aighearach (97333)

              They emit about as much as a calculator of similar power consumption.

            • If you have an unshielded oscillator in your electronic device, it's emitting EMF waves. Probably not much, but it's still there.

              When I was in the Navy way back in the 80's as a demonstration of why TEMPEST/EMCON was important to security - the auditors had one of us bring in a portable TV from home. They sat in their van, outside the building, two stories down, and sixty odd feet from the building wall... we sat in the office and watched TV, periodically changing the channel and logging the time we did

          • by MacGyver2210 (1053110) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @09:28PM (#39399753)

            A blogger citing one instance of a handheld GPS system interfering with the plane-mounted one? Gee, that's a whole lot of trouble given the last ~100 years of flying and how little PEDs have done to cause problems on planes.

            In the immortal words of Toby from The West Wing:

            Flight Attendant on AF1: "Sir you need to put away your phone, we're about to take off."
            Toby: "If my $36 phone from Radio Shack can bring down Air Force One, we have bigger problems than we thought."

        • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

          by Darth_brooks (180756)

          I've always looked at the policies as a hedge against the *really* crappy knock-off electronic devices that spring up. Sure, the wifi on that super cheap android knock-off tablet is under 100mw....sure....

          But for the most part, the FAA is in the business of blaming *someone* when something goes wrong. A reversal of the no electronic devices could someday potentially conceivable maybe result in them getting some share of the blame for an incident.

          In the end, I just wish more people would act like adults when

          • by hal2814 (725639) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @09:37PM (#39399783)
            " Seriously. Just shut your fucking iPad off for five minutes."

            Tell that to the pilots and crew who are using them now instead of lugging around a flight bag full of charts. Their iPad is the same one you can buy anywhere. If their which are sitting right in the cockpit aren't gumming up the works, I fail to see how mine magically will.
        • From a quick 5 second google search:

          http://www.pcworld.com/article/110576/cell_phones_still_pose_flight_risks.html [pcworld.com]

          From March 1996 to December 2002, CAA recorded 35 aircraft safety-related incidents that were linked to cell phones, the authority said.

          The reported interference incidents included interrupted communications due to noise in the flight crew's headphones, according to the study.

          Even minor interference such as introducing static noise on flight crew's headsets can be a not-so-good thing during takeoffs and landings when the pilot already has his hands full.

          People tend to be skeptical about this because in their normal daily existence, they do not see any problem with cellphones and do not experience interference with their other electronic devices (TV, computer, e

          • by dgatwood (11270)

            Given that even the most RFI-noisy cell phones (GSM) only affect unshielded high-gain power amplifiers within a radius of about five or six feet in open air, even after factoring in constructive interference from signals bouncing off the metal skin, a cell phone causing "static" that interferes with an ATC call would still have to be in the cockpit or the forward galley. And if those amplifiers are unshielded, the designers should be shot.

          • Either they're dangerous or they're not. If they're dangerous then the planes need to be fixed to prevent terrorists from using this to cause problems. If they're not then stop adding one more pointless annoyance to plane travel which is already one of the least enjoyable activities that people undergo voluntarily.

            Furthermore, if low em is ok, but badly shielded devices are a problem then the solution is simple. Have em sensors around the plane. If any of the sensors detects excessive em, the stewardess wil
            • by digitig (1056110)

              Either they're dangerous or they're not. If they're dangerous then the planes need to be fixed to prevent terrorists from using this to cause problems.

              You really don't understand statistics, do you? Risk is probabilistic. The target level of safety for aircraft is of the order of less than one accident in 10^7 flight hours, which we're achieving. Turning on a mobile phone does not make the aircraft crash: it increases the risk. If you got lots of terrorists on every flight (which would cost a fortune) you'd probably pull the figure down below 10^7 flight hours to -- oh, who knows, let's say one accident in every 10^6 flight hours. That's an unacceptable

          • by green1 (322787) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @08:41PM (#39399489)

            Was any followup ever done on any of those 35 cases to see if the cell phones were actually the cause of the interference?

            Incident reports of that form are simply "the crew says this happened"... it would be a lot more convincing if some followup was done to see if it was actually cell phone interference, or other interference that just happened to abate some time after a known cell phone was turned off.

            It should be noted that the study linked stated that they weren't able to reproduce the results. Additionally the test they did that did show some interference had several unlikely assumptions. First of all, the equipment they used was that used in general aviation, not commercial aviation. It was also all old and outdated equipment unlikely to be in use on any airliner. Additionally the cell phone had to be on maximum power (I'm also not sure where they found a cell phone with a maximum power of 2 watts! I haven't seen one that powerful since the old brick phones of the late 1980s!) and less than 30cm from the equipment before it caused any interference.

            Hardly a reliable study for the current situation we are discussing.

      • had bad wiring on in-flight entertainment that started a fire.

      • by Osty (16825)

        Needs citation.

        There was a case [newscientist.com] of in-flight wifi systems causing certain new displays to blank out periodically, but:

        • The blanking was within spec, and the display returned to function in less than the required time before it would be a problem.
        • The culprit was the in-flight wifi system, not an individual's personal electronics
        • There is absolutely nothing a passenger could do that would cause a problem like that short of running a super high-powered personal hotspot device while sitting in the very front ro
      • Nobody said electronic devices can "bring down" a plane.

        So quickly we forget [photobucket.com]
    • by pz (113803) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @07:34PM (#39399147) Journal

      The reason you should not be reading your kindle, or have a laptop out during takeoff and landing, or any reasonably hard-edged, dense object is that it has the potential to become a projectile upon sudden deceleration. The less crap raining horizontally through the cabin upon impact, the better the chances of survivability.

      • by dgatwood (11270)

        I'm sitting here holding a Nook Simple Touch in one hand and an average-sized paperback book in the other (typing with my feet :-p ). The Nook weighs slightly less than the paperback book (7.6 ounces versus 8.5 ounces). It weighs significantly less than a hardcover book of comparable length (1 pound, 9.5 ounces).

        I suppose you could make the argument that it would hurt more than the paperback book because if it hits edge-first, it would spread that weight over a smaller area, but even that argument falls a

      • by MacGyver2210 (1053110) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @09:30PM (#39399761)

        But they don't care if you have your electronics out. They don't care if you're holding your iPod. They just want it turned off.

    • by joe_frisch (1366229) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @08:49PM (#39399529)

      I have personally observed interference from a camera (Nikon D70) on the navigation instruments on my Bonanza (caused the VOR needle to jump - we were in visual conditions at the time so it wasn't a problem). Of course airliner avionics is better - but we need the odds of substantial interference to be about 1 in a million for it not to be a safety risk.

      It is true that many passengers fail to turn of electronics, but remember that the transmit power adds from all the devices. It is possible that 400 cell phones on a plane would be a more serious problem than the few that weren't turned off.

      --- Joe Frisch

    • by mcrbids (148650) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @11:32PM (#39400285) Journal

      As a pilot, takeoff is not at all a sensitive time of flight. Pretty much, you mash the gas all the way forwardward, and keep the plane pretty much in line with the runway. (yawn)

      The sensitive part is LANDING the plane! Here, you are actually aiming at the ground with minimal power right up to the last 10 seconds or so, where you pull the nose up just inches off the ground and (if all goes well) allow the loss of speed to force the wings to stop producing enough lift to stay airborne.

      It's merely a matter of practice to do safely, but it's *tough* to do elegantly every time. Every pilot blows a landing and bounces or comes down rough every so often.

      But again, that's the *pilot* that we're talking about. Personally, I wouldn't care 1 whit about what the passengers do during the landing sequence.

  • the policy for putting away devices during take-off and landing is a sound one, for safety alone. take-off and landing are the most hazardous times during a flight. having small, solid, dense objects like cell phones, tablets, e-readers, game devices and the like unsecured during take-off or landing is just inviting trouble. for those times, it's probably better to avoid people being hit by the errant portable electronic device instead of allowing the "convenience" of their use.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by FatAlb3rt (533682)
      That would make complete sense if you believed that 1) no one has ever had a cell phone on during takeoff and landing and b) someone who had nefarious intentions would abide by the rule.
      • by chebucto (992517)

        His point had nothing to do with RF interference or terrorists - just that loose objects are hazardous in a crash situation. If a plane suddenly decelerates, that ipod at the back of the cabin can very well become a missile heading towards the front of the cabin.

      • by Nursie (632944)

        How the hell did this post get +5 Insightful? It's nothing to do with what it's replying to....

    • by Nursie (632944) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @07:26PM (#39399093)

      While I agree with what you're saying, and think it may be a good idea it doesn't seem to be the point of the rule -

      I'm perfectly allowed to read a hardcover book during these times.

    • by Rei (128717)

      Everything has an opportunity cost. What's the economic activity lost, for example, due to business travellers not being able to work during takeoff and landing?

    • Brakes, undercarriage, mixture, flaps, fuel, altimeter, FUCKING CABIN SECURITY, landing light. That's how you get ready for landing any plane.

      Cabin security means no loose items, everything is strapped down or stowed, everybody is fucking wearing shoes, has moderate situational awareness and is ready for emergency procedures like brace for impact, evacuation or fire.

  • by TWX (665546) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @07:18PM (#39399039)

    ...is the use of devices like Bluetooth mice and other short-range radio devices that don't communicate to a distance more than a few feet. I want to be able to use Bluetooth headphones and Bluetooth mice on a plane where getting tangled up with wires is a very unappealing prospect.

    I'm not too worried about cell phones acting as such, as we'll be too high and going too fast to make that do any good (plus I don't want a plane full of chatterboxes), and I'm not terribly worried about wifi, as either the airline will provide a means for it or else they won't. The only time that for me, wifi might be useful is if I'm travelling with a group that's split up and we want to share text communication or else want to collaborate on documents. Then something ad-hoc might actually make sense.

    That's about it.

    • by FatAlb3rt (533682)
      plus I don't want a plane full of chatterboxes

      We already get that now! :) Seriously, have you been on a flight lately where someone hasn't whipped out their phone to call someone to let the know "we just landed" before the line of people in the aisle has even started moving?! [/rant]
      • by TWX (665546)

        I don't give a damn about that once we are landed; that's a fairly short duration and if it helps people pull up the curb at the right time then that's fine.

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      I'm not too worried about cell phones acting as such, as we'll be too high and going too fast to make that do any good (plus I don't want a plane full of chatterboxes)

      I've met people involved with getting cell phones working on planes by installing their own 'cell tower' on board, so in the future you'll probably have to pay extra for the cell-free flights.

    • WiFi is approved for planes. I've been on multiple flights with it. They have little APs somewhere in the plane and you can turn your laptop on and get on the Internet, for a large fee. Bluetooth operates int eh same 2.4Ghz spectrum, just with less power. So I fail to see who it could cause problems that WiFi does not.

  • Wait, electric razors are permitted? Why? Do you really, _really_ need to shave during that 1-5 minute take-off/landing window? I thought there were two main reasons for this rule---interference, and potential for projectiles. The interference argument is probably weak for most devices, but the potential to act as unintended projectiles is real, and a limitation that makes very good sense to me.

    Really people, just put back in the back for that period, you can survive without it for a few minutes: just ta
    • by antdude (79039)

      Yes, I need to shave my beard during those boring events. [grin]

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by russotto (537200)

      I thought there were two main reasons for this rule---interference, and potential for projectiles.

      No, it's just interference. "Potential for projectiles" is an example of the kinds of additional excuses that those in favor of rules for rules sake start to tack on when their original reason starts to wear thin.

  • Familiar territory (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Virtucon (127420) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @07:24PM (#39399083)

    I've been involved in this for a long time, including the Supplemental Type Certification and FAA processes to get WiFi on aircraft. Most of what happens to get you to turn them off during takeoff and landing has little to do with interference, it's to get your attention and to get you to follow directions. All of that is really important to your safety more-so than a nudeo-scan 5000 operated by the TSA. The other aspects such as Cellular Phone use during flights also isn't a technical risk to the aircraft but the annoyance factor to other passengers as well as coordination possibilities for terrorist activities.. Think "Ackbar we're over Chicago, what do I do?" That's why the damn in-flight position tracking on larger aircraft suddenly turns off when you're close to arrival. Some of this is a bit silly because we've allowed WiFi on planes and you can log into flight tracker or use the GOGO website to track where you are. The safety feature there is that it shuts off below 10,000 feet automatically and there's always a breaker in the cockpit that the pilots can use to shut it off.

    If the FAA wants to review this then great but there's a lot more to it than just "possible" interference with aircraft systems and I don't expect that the airlines will open up the floodgates and let you use anything you want, when you want either just because of the annoyance issues.

    • by green1 (322787)

      coordination possibilities for terrorist activities.. Think "Ackbar we're over Chicago, what do I do?"

      Yes, because nobody would ever think to use the existing seat back telephones for that purpose, only a cell phone will do!

      • by Virtucon (127420)

        I think it was because that terrorists couldn't get credit cards maybe?

        That whole on board phone thing was a disaster for most airlines because they didn't make any real revenue on it and had to carry 100s of pounds of weight onboard the aircraft. Every pound = fuel $$$

      • by Imrik (148191)

        I would imagine it's difficult to call someone who's on another plane with the seat back phone.

    • by AK Marc (707885)

      Most of what happens to get you to turn them off during takeoff and landing has little to do with interference, it's to get your attention and to get you to follow directions.

      Yet I'm allowed to do the crossword at that time, or read a large hard-cover book (if the follow up was about handheld projectiles). There may be some reasons to ban them, but any hint of any rule I've ever seen is not applied consistently, and that's what annoys/frustrates most.

      • by Virtucon (127420)

        Well I can't argue with that point but the airlines also apply the same paint to all electronic devices. They *may* cause interference so to shut them off. What's really sad is that about 90% of the phone users I see just switch the screen off or switch it to airplane mode, so yeah it doesn't make much sense at all.

        • by AK Marc (707885)
          A cell phone "should be" switched into airplane mode, then turned off hard-off (airplane first so if turned on in flight for Angry Plants Vs Zombie Birds or whatever, it'll already be in airplane mode). But most put it in airplane mode and turn the screen off, which is not significantly different than playing a PSP or such. I've never seen a rule or application of rules that was anywhere close to consistent.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 18, 2012 @08:33PM (#39399461)

      Dude, it has nothing to do with terrorists. Where did you even get that idea from?

      The reason is this: statistically speaking, altitudes below 10,000 feet are far more dangerous than higher altitudes. Most accidents occur during takeoff/landing and given that transponders are not required below 10,000 unless within controlled airspace and/or within a Mode C veil, it makes the lower altitudes a fairly dangerous area. Hence why Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) are prohibited below 10,000 feet and sterile cockpit procedures are enforced any time the aircraft is below 10,000 feet.

      Why then can passengers continue to listen to music and watch TV through the aircraft's on-board entertainment system at altitudes below 10,000 feet? The answer is that all of those systems have a built-in feature that disables (pauses, mutes, etc) them when a PA is made. PEDs do not have that ability which is why they are prohibited below 10,000 feet.

      Read Advisory Circular 91-21.1B (specifically states that the FCC mandates the ban on using mobile phones while airborne), 14 CFR 121.306, and 14 CFR 121.542(c) for further information.

    • by PPH (736903)

      I've been involved in this for a long time, including the Supplemental Type Certification and FAA processes to get WiFi on aircraft. Most of what happens to get you to turn them off during takeoff and landing has little to do with interference, it's to get your attention and to get you to follow directions.

      So, I can wear my noise canceling headphones during takeoff and landing. But I have to turn them off! When they are off, they are nearly as effective as with the active noise canceling (turned on) at blocking sound. But even when plugged in to the entertainment system, they won't pass the system audio. So I can't hear diddly and I miss announcements.

      Taking them off in addition to turning them off would be better. But then I have to listen to someone's shrieking sprog (there's no 'air mode' on those blasted

    • by deblau (68023)

      Following up on this, one issue during takeoff and landing isn't so much electrical as gravitational. Lots of g-forces in strange directions and easily dropped gadgets don't mix.

  • The head of the FAA of course!

  • The last time I flew on an airplane I took out my Android phone and turned on an app that uses GPS to track your elevation, speed, direction, pitch etc. It was a blast to watch how fast the plane accelerated down the runway, pitch as we would turn, and what the take-off, cruising, landing speeds. I then switched to google maps and watched as I zipped across states. It was a ton of fun.

    And guess what? No ill effects on the airplane.

  • by cbope (130292) on Monday March 19, 2012 @06:04AM (#39401431)

    Well, I can assure you that if actual mobile phone use during flights is approved, as in allowing passengers to make and receive calls, I will be first in line to boycott air transportation. I sincerely hope this is not even on the table.

    Can you imagine what a cacaphonic mess it would be if everyone was allowed to use their mobile phones during flights? It's bad enough that you are sitting in a tin can with hundreds of people in close quarters for several hours. Add in mobile phones ringing all the damn time and people talking continuously on their phones and it will be a nightmare to travel by air. No thanks.

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