Do we really need to “turn off all Portable Electronic Devices” when on an airplane?

Most passengers would really like to know…. Do Personal Electronic Devices (PED’s) really interfere with airplane communications and navigation systems?  A string of recent events has given airline passengers a reason to question whether or not they really should turn off their electronics when flying.   Certain celebrities have been kicked off of airplanes for refusing to turn off their iPhones whilst some pilots are being given approval to use iPads in the cockpit?!  How and why do these circumstances make any sense?  Truth be told, it’s a little complicated, but here’s why the electronics should be turned off:

The use of PED’s on airplanes is restricted by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  For many years, the FAA has had regulations in place to limit the usage and operation of electronics by passengers.  The reasoning for this is the same as you hear during the announcements made by flight attendants: It COULD interfere with the airplane’s communication or navigation systems.

As a commercial airline pilot I can tell you that I have had instances, while on the ground, where my own phone being left on actually did interfere with radio transmissions.  Once, while delayed and parked out on a taxiway, an incoming call on my phone was enough to cause static on the plane’s radios.  Even though the phone was set to vibrate and I did not answer it, the signal from the incoming call was enough to turn clear communications from Air Traffic Controllers into static that was difficult to understand.

How is that possible?  And even if that is true, how could one little phone, tablet, or computer way back IN THE REAR of the airplane affect any of the systems on a modern airliner?  Well, this is where it gets complicated.

The electronic systems on airliners in service today are in fact protected and shielded from interference from other electronics on board the plane.  Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any PED’s would cause a problem with the planes electronics.

However, it is not the lone cell phone that concerns the FAA or airlines.  It is an entire plane full of Phones, PDA’s, Tablets, Laptops, etc. that are all transmitting electronic signals at the same time.

Also, it should be pointed out that the plane’s electronic systems are not all located in the cockpit at the front of the plane.  There are computers, wiring, and antennas all along the entire length of the airplane, both inside and out.  So, even though you are sitting back in row 22, there could be a computer or antenna located directly below your seat that is transmitting electronic signals towards the ground or other planes.

So, a 737 holding 130 passengers means that there is probably at least as many PED’s as there are people.  That adds up to a lot of powerful electronic signals.  And, most people don’t realize that many planes and their parts were designed years if not decades ago.  They are still completely effective and safe by today’s standards, but this means that they were built and tested to work with technology from the 1970’s, 1980’s, or 1990’s.  Today’s hand-held electronics are far more powerful than anything engineers had imagined a decade or more ago (and getting more powerful every day).  So is certainly possible, however unlikely, for even a single cell phone to interfere with the plane’s radios.

Fortunately, there has never been a serious accident caused by interference from PED’s.  It is highly unlikely that even a large number of transmitting PED’s could cause an accident.  But, airlines and the government agencies that regulate them always air on the side of caution when it comes to safety.  Even if there is only a very remote chance of PED’s causing a problem, they will continue to be prohibited during certain parts of the flight.

It should be noted that airlines do have the ability to test and approve certain devices for safe use on planes.  The iPad’s currently being used by pilots at some airlines is just one example.  Those devices were only approved for use in the cockpit after being thoroughly tested on numerous planes after demonstrating that they would not cause any problems if used in that manner.  Unfortunately, in order for additional iPads or devices to be permitted, each individual brand, model, and type of device must be tested in large numbers and approved separately.  And with new and improved models of phones, laptops, and tablets coming out every month, it would be almost impossible to test them all (It would also be incredibly expensive).  Given the time and costs involved, as well as the current economic state, I would NOT expect any new tests or changes to the rule any time soon.

So you can continue to turn off your electronic devices, knowing that it’s a pretty small price to pay to contribute to the safety of your flight.

-Do you really need to “turn off all Portable Electronic Devices” when on an airplane?-

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