clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Tests poke holes in FAA's electronics ban on takeoff and landing — but does it matter?

New, 134 comments

The New York Times' Nick Bilton has commissioned his own series of radiation tests, where he finds that a Kindle — banned by the FAA during takeoff and landing — is emitting just 30 microvolts per meter, barely enough to register a blip.

Alec Baldwin
Alec Baldwin

Will the fallout from Alec Baldwin's ill-timed Words With Friends move ultimately lead the FAA to drop its ban on many types of consumer electronics during critical moments of a commercial flight? It's not just Baldwin, of course: The New York Times' Nick Bilton has taken the Federal Aviation Administration to task in the last several weeks over the ban. It's an issue that's certainly in the forefront right now, perhaps more than ever before; Kindles and iPads have moved from novelties to standard-issue equipment in many travelers' carry-ons, and it's not a surprise that everyone wants to use them. Adding to the frustration, different members of the aviation industry — from private firms to the FAA itself — have given nebulous and often conflicting answers on why the devices are banned in the first place.

In his latest piece, Bilton actually commissioned his own series of radiation tests, where he finds that a Kindle is emitting about 30 microvolts per meter — barely enough to register a blip. The argument that an entire aircraft cabin of Kindle users would collectively generate enough RF to interfere with cockpit systems doesn't hold water, either: the radiation from multiple devices isn't simply summed like that (as one of his interviewees notes, if that were the case, you wouldn't be able to enter an office full of PCs without donning protective gear). Adding to the confusion is that the FAA has a number of odd exceptions to its ban, including electric shavers and voice recorders. Bilton tested a voice recorder and found that its radiation level was roughly in line with that of the Kindle, so justifying the ban using the potential for RF interference alone is seemingly a non-starter.

It's completely fair and reasonable for travelers to demand a complete and consistent explanation for why Kindles, iPads, iPods, and similar devices aren't permitted on takeoff and landing. It's also completely reasonable, though, for the FAA to continue enforcing a ban until it can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is zero safety risk to either passengers or crew. The airline industry is notoriously bureaucratic, but there's a very good reason for that: every aspect of commercial aviation needs to be meticulously vetted, tested, re-vetted, and re-tested to maximize safety at all costs. Changes in the rules frequently take many years to enact and enforce. It's no coincidence we're able to safely send hundreds of millions of passengers at 550mph through mid-air every year, and a brutal regulatory environment plays a big role in that — perhaps more than in any other business. Even a 0.00001 percent increase in risk to the aircraft is unacceptable.

It's unclear why electric shavers and voice recorders are permitted under the current rules, but there are a few important differences to consider. Presumably, the FAA never imagined — even under its wildest models — that a majority of an aircraft cabin would be using shavers or voice recorders simultaneously. Even if radiation isn't a primary concern, there are many factors that need to be considered regarding any wide-scale change in passenger behavior during the most critical parts of a flight. What's more, I wouldn't put it past the FAA and pilots to distrust "airplane mode" altogether: its behavior isn't regulated by law, and flight attendants don't have the manpower to verify that passengers' devices are set to airplane mode anyway. Shavers and voice recorders don't have Wi-Fi or cellular radios (although I would definitely buy a Wi-Fi enabled shaver, no questions asked).

To be fair, there are millions of hours of real-world flight time where a few passengers have discreetly left devices turned on — come on, we've all done it — and those flight hours have been completely uneventful. Ultimately, though, this is a very simple risk / benefit analysis: if and only if regulators (and the aviation industry at large) can agree without a hint of dissent that these devices are 100 percent safe should they be allowed during takeoff and landing. Ten extra minutes of Angry Birds isn't worth the smallest sliver of added risk, no matter how theoretical or how remote.