Good Question: Why Do We Turn Off Electronics On Takeoff?

By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

— Before takeoff and landing, we know it is coming: “ladies and gentleman, please turn off all electronic devices.” However, for many of us, it’s hard to believe that an iPod or a Kindle could really affect an airplane. So, why do we have to turn off electronics on take-off and landing?

Surprisingly, the ban on personal electronic devices (PEDs) is not mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“The regulations also let airlines independently determine if passengers can use PEDs not specifically mentioned by the rules,” according to the FAA fact sheet on in-flight electronics.

“The airlines simply don’t have the manpower, the money, the time, or interest to find out if it’s safe for your cell phone … to be operating during the critical portion of flight,” said Kathleen Bangs, an aviation expert and former commercial airline pilot.

With all the new electronics coming out, it would be virtually impossible to test all of them.

“Virtually all microprocessors radiate signals over a wide frequency range and, in fact, part of the required governmental testing is to determine the level of these emissions over the frequency range generated by the device,” said F.M. Evans, a former FCC employee based in St. Paul.

“In view of the number of devices in use (including legitimate transmitters), the percentage causing problems is microscopic,” according to Evans.

The regulations date to 1961, when transistor radios started being carried onto airline flights.

“Back in the 60s, there was a case where they thought it interfered with a flight over New York,” said Bangs.

The fear was that the personal electronics could emit radiation and interfere with the ground-based radar system. Now, planes use satellite navigation systems, or GPS.

The fear isn’t that a couple iPods could bring down a plane, rather, “it’s during the critical phase, when a pilot, especially in bad weather, is relying on sensitive navigation equipment, if something was to happen with your equipment,” said Bangs.

There have been several cases where pilots or investigators thought something went wrong because of a cell phone being left on, or a laptop computer, but investigators have never been able to recreate the problem.

“There have been cases when Boeing has gone ahead and bought the laptop or purchased the cell phone from passengers, whose devices were thought to be suspect, and they run them through all these rigorous tests, and they can’t find anything,” said Bangs.

The FAA did ask the RTCA to research this issue, and they found that the risk of something going wrong on an instrument-landing was close to 1 in a million. But, according to the FAA, “the final RTCA report said there is insufficient information to support a wholesale change in policies that restrict use of PEDs.”

Because the FAA has essentially ceded control over this issue to the airlines, it’s not in the airlines best interest to make a change, according to Bangs.

“What airline wants responsibility of having there be an accident, having them not be able to find any other cause, no pilot error, no mechanical error, and it traces back to” an electronic device, she said.

“The FAA has issued guidance to airlines letting passengers turn on most PEDs after the plane reaches 10,000 feet. At a lower altitude, any potential interference could be more of a safety hazard as the cockpit crew focuses on critical arrival and departure duties,” according to the agency.

The Federal Communications Commission considered removing its ban on in-flight cell phone use in 2004, but withdrew that proposal based on massive negative feedback.

Either way, cell phone handsets would still be subject to testing and approval by the FAA and/or the airlines.

So, why can we use our cell phones and devices after we land, and while we’re on the runway, but not while we taxi before we take off?

According to Bangs, that has more to do with the workflow of the crew. Before takeoff, they make one announcement telling people to buckle up, turn off devices, and prepare to takeoff. After landing, there’s no reason to worry about the navigation systems, so if devices should happen to interfere, there’s no safety risk.

More from Jason DeRusha
  • Victim Du Jour

    Most people who have put their cells next to the car stereo know why it bugs a pilot.

  • Jess

    Think about it, during takeoff do you really want to have the person in the exit row that has their iPod/computer/ or VERY important phone call going on? They would not be as aware of one who is not using it or who is sleeping, to react to the emergency that is going on before or during takeoff. Think about if you were in an emergency and you were talking to someone on the phone, do you really want them to be freaking out at home not knowing why people are screaming? Or think about trying to get out of the aircraft in an emergency. You only have so much time; do you really want someone to slow up everyone because they are preoccupied with their electronics? Another thing you should think about is how fast or hard they can come to a stop if a deer or something comes out on the run way, items like that can going flying. Are we really in a society that can’t wait to return to their electronic distraction?

  • Mike

    I have done RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) testing on my job. I have keyed a 2-way radio and seen the displayed weight on a scale change everytime the talk button was pressed. I have seen equipment actually shut down when the radio was keyed also. This may seem outrageous but I have witnessed this and who know what effect it will have if everyone is allowed to us personal electronic devices on flights.

    • K.

      I am a nurse in a hospital and what many people don’t realize is that cell phones can interfere with life support equipment such as ventilators. It could also interfere with the telemetry signals for equipement such as heart monitoring as well as interfere with IV pumps if the caller is standing within 3 feet of the equipment. If you see employees at a hospital using what looks like cell phones in their work, know that many of these devices don’t work outside of the facility because they rely on antennas that are located within the building. These devices are much safer to use around medical equipment in the hospitals.

  • Travis

    Having a good number of hours in SES (single engine sea) and single engine landHaving a good many of hours in SES (single engine sea) and SEL (single engine land) in different planes, I can say using iPads, MP3’s or phones do NOT interfere with your radio or navigation.

    If they wanted to have all electrical devices turned off, that would mean the lights would be off (they cause RF) and the watches the stewardesses have the batteries removed. Sound crazy? The engines cause a heck of a lot more RF then all of the devices passengers may have.

    The MAIN reason for cell phones being off, is at lower elevations when you can still pick up towers, you are tripping more towers than you ever would on ground. The phones are designed to be handed off from one tower to the next when you are in the car. Being handled by more than 30 towers at once would overload the system, causing problems for the companies, not to mention echoes at times for the person on the other end of your call.

  • Charlie Severson

    I agree with Jess. I have a friend who was a flight attendant and she says that in their training, they were told that was the real reason – they need passengers to be able to respond quickly in an emergency (most of which occur during takeoff and landing). So they ban the electronics to remove distractions.

  • Anaheim Fuse Replacement

    So this is the real reason why we should turn off our cell phones or any gadget whenever we are board on plane. I’m really glad to have come across with you blog. Safety is more important.

  • Jess

    Saftey is always more important!

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