Even When Parked?


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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55 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Mostly idle and uninformed speculation follows.

    I’ve been told that RF emissions from a variety of electronic devices can interfere with the calibration of navigational systems. Once a plane is landed and taxiing from runway to gate, the navigational system isn’t so important anymore as the pilot can taxi visually, and the nav system will have to be re-calibrated before the next takeoff anyway. So it would make sense that the rule would be more lenient after landing than before takeoff.

    As I say, I don’t know this for certain. But it’s plausible enough reasoning to induce me to comply with instructions.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’ve been told that RF emissions from a variety of electronic devices can interfere with the calibration of navigational systems

      This is theoretically possible, but I highly doubt there is a substantive causal link with modern consumer electronics.  Documented cases of RF interference exist, but are usually (IMO) due to devices that generate a *lot* more RF interference, like military-grade equipment.  Planes in particular are hardened against RF emitters that are considerably more powerful than your cell phone.  More here.

      From that, this is the real problem:

      The technology of cellular phones is based on small local ground-based reception areas called `cells‘. A cellphone user is served by just one cell, and when reaching the boundary of a cell, will be `handed over’ to another cell which (s)he is about to enter. The topology of coverage is based on the assumption that the user is on or near the ground, and it is a technical assumption on which the entire system is based that a user will be within `sight’ of just one cell except when nearing a cell boundary. When in an aircraft, however, a user is within radio `sight’ of many cells, simply because (s)he is way off the ground. An attempted call or reception from an aircraft would activate many if not all cells in the local area, which `breaks’ the technology — it causes many transmission problems and the system is disturbed. Therefore the various communication authorities, such as the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), ban the attempted use of cellular phones while on board aircraft. However, such attempted use is not ipso facto rendered dangerous. It is technically inappropriate and antisocial, as well as mostly futile.


      • To be clear, my primary objection is not the ban on cell phones, but electronics more generally. I am more than happy to turn my cell radios off. If nothing else, it saves batteries.Report

        • Avatar Scott in reply to Will Truman says:


          Sorry the ban on electronics is inconvenient for you.  Personally I’d rather be safe than sorry b/c I value my life even if there is only a small chance that personal electronics could cause interference with nav systems.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Scott says:

            And this Precautionary Principle type thinking is why we can’t have nice things.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Scott says:

            I get that. A lot of people support the passage of all sorts of laws that cause inconvenience people in return for unproven assurances of improved safety by the government.Report

            • Avatar Scott in reply to Will Truman says:


              Realistically how much of an inconvenience to you or anyone else is the demand to shut off personal electronics. 1 out of 10, maybe less?Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Scott says:

                It’s one of the biggest irritations of flying, and unlike the others an unnecessary irritation.

                When I am sitting somewhere with nothing to do, nearly everything I would like to be doing to pass the time involves batteries. Can’t listen to music. Can’t watch a show. Can’t listen to the audiobook I was listening to before. Can’t read an ebook. Can’t get work done on the computer. Can’t do the vast majority of things I would be doing if I were sitting in a waiting room or that I do sitting at a terminal. About all I can do is start a regular book (I am as likely as not never going to finish – I spent almost a year on a single book reading during take-offs, landings, and sometimes during the flight), or start reading a magazine (which typically have low signal-to-noise ratio as far as “interesting” goes).

                It takes something I already consider largely unpleasant and says “Okay, turn everything off and sit there and bask in the unpleasantness” rather than getting to tune out and allow the time to go past as swiftly as possible.Report

            • Avatar Ryan Bonneville in reply to Will Truman says:

              I love the security theater aspect of this. It’s the same response I get when I complain to “regular” people about TSA. They just don’t think it’s that a big of a deal to have to take their shoes off if it means not dying in a terrorist attack.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        Cell phones seem to work fine in high rise buildings which are certainly way higher than any plane which has yet to take off.Report

  2. Avatar Will Truman says:

    I think ;the whole thing is a scam. The last straw for me was when I was sitting across from a pilot who ignored the rules.

    Putting my biases aside and assuming that there is interference…

    I would think that the interference would only occur when the devices are on. If there is a residual effect, then they shouldn’t be on during flight because they are pretty necessary for landing and if the equipment got FUBARed on the flight, that would be… bad. Likewise, having it on when the plane is parked and then telling people to turn it on when the plane is getting ready for takeoff would make sense, but having them on when the plane is parked still makes so.Report

    • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Will Truman says:

      Mythbusters did an entire episode on this. The law is indeed bogus, and if you’re a student of regulatory capture, you’ll recognize that the “rule” appeared immediately after “airp-hones” appeared magically on the seat in front of you to make those “necessary” inflight calls at $8.00 per minute. I suppose 9/11 is ancient history in everyone’s minds but you’ll recall perhaps the everyone on those planes were allowed to make cell phone calls while in flight. One would have hoped that all those cell phones would have made those bad planes lose their way so they’d have to crash harmlessly in a field. Oh wait, is THAT what happened with flight 93?

      The whole thing is BS.Report

  3. Avatar jeff says:

    what I hear them announce is (and I fly 50K miles a year), “we can’t close the door until all the devices are off”.

    I guess it’s implied that you should not turn them back on after the door closes.

    And now it’s SOP that you can turn on your phone as soon as the plane lands.


  4. Avatar Ian M. says:

    I think the experiments to determine the answer would be more expensive than the gains from the answer.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Ian M. says:

      I would think that portable electronics companies, particularly for newer items like tablets and ebook readers, would have a vested interest in convenience in using their items. The fact that I can’t use an ebook reader on a flight is actually one of the big reasons I don’t have one. Flights are where I do a lot of my reading!Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Will Truman says:

        Ebook readers emit about as much RF interference as a watch.

        This is a case of, “the people enforcing the rule can’t tell the difference between something with an antenna and something without one, so just make it all electronics”.Report

        • What about a portable voice recorder?

          Is there anywhere you are aware of that has a list of RF emissions of various devices? It’d be an interesting chart to see.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Will Truman says:

            The FCC knows.  You know that sticker on all electronics that says, “This device complies with part 15 of the FCC rules. Operation is subject to the following two conditions: (1) this device may not cause harmful interference, and (2) this device must accept any interference received, including interference that may cause undesired operation.”

            In situ, this is actually kind of complicated.  Your device manufacturer probably knows.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              All that sticker proves is that someone put a sticker on the thing.  Manufacturers aren’t required to have testing done by the FCC specifically; they can have the testing done by whoever they want, including Chang’s Stir Fry And EMI/EMC Testing Shack down the road.Report

      • Avatar Plinko in reply to Will Truman says:

        Wait, who says you can’t use one in flight? You can’t use one during takeoff or landing and they ask you to put it in ‘airplane mode’ during the flight, but I see a lot of people using them when I fly.
        If you’re taking short flights, it’s true the taxi/takeoff/landing/taxi portion chews up half your flight, though.

        I use my blackberry in flight, no one’s ever said anything. I also have never been asked to power down anything until the taxi starts – I wonder if that’s one of those things that are enforced rather differently among various airlines.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Plinko says:

          I was unclear. I was referring to taxi/takeoff/landing/taxi. That thing you said about it chewing up half the flight. That’s what I find really annoying. And unnecessary.Report

          • Avatar Plinko in reply to Will Truman says:

            If you take mostly short flights it’s pretty maddening – I’m lucky and fly long-haul international so at least I have significant in-air time, plus we get major runway priority – the whole issue is lesser, but still silly.

            The only suggestion I can give is to take a book you’d want to keep reading even after they greenlight the electronics.Report

  5. Avatar Mark Lawrence says:

    I fly Continental almost exclusively.  The rule has always been: when the doors close, e-devices are asked to be turned off (mobiles, iPads, kindles, games).

    Why we can turn our mobiles on once we land and are taxiing to the gate seems counter to this, but there it is.Report

  6. Avatar David Ryan says:

    It’s James Fallows’ fault. Report

  7. Avatar Scott says:

    I don’t understand why folks can’t STFU and follow the rules.Report

  8. Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

    I honestly think this is a case where technology is moving faster than the federal government can deal with it. *insert conservative joke here*

    Remember, smartphones weren’t a big market outside of upper-middle-class professionals and tech geeks four years ago. Tablets didn’t exist outside of a niche of a niche of a niche a couple of years ago. EBooks are new technology.

    I don’t doubt that within a few years, we’ll have a new rule saying using a phone is still banned (probably more for other passenger’s than the plane crashing), but all other electronic use is fine after the safety speech is given.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:


    • I hope, hope, hope you’re right. But I’m not very optimistic. Not only have some electronic devices been around for quite a while (laptops, walkmans), but some of them cater to exactly the sort of travelers who have pull (businessmen and their laptops) where if they’re going to make accommodations, it’d have made it for *them.*

      I note, following a previous link of Patrick’s, that handheld voice recorders are allowed. But walkmans, of course, never were. It’s not hard to see why. The voice recorders were for professionals, the walkmans not. I strongly suspect that if we were ever going to get laptops, we’d have them by now. I don’t think they’ll back down because of purely entertainment devices.

      But I hope, hope, hope you’re right.Report

  9. Avatar trizzlor says:

    A pretty good explanation I heard was that fiddling with an electronic device is also something a bad person would be doing to actively jam the flight sensors or initiate a count-down sequence or something. So rather than having the stewards go through and actively watch all of your devices for weather they’re being used for bad purposes or not, they just ask you to put everything away. It’s security through obscurity, naturally, but if your attacker is a moron (and we have been quite lucky in that respect) then obscurity is enough.Report

  10. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    You know what’s really weird?  A rich white guy got busted.

    Less surprising would be if they held up the plane so that Mr. Baldwin could finish his game of Words With [sic] Friends.  The little people can wait.Report

  11. Avatar Jon Rowe says:

    You gotta know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em and when to pick your battles.  The diva Baldwin can get away with this shit when he has authority over his turf.  But when under someone else’s authority over their turf, you have to play by their rules or else be excluded.  People who have angry egotistical personalities tend to get fired a lot from jobs (unless they are so needed that it wouldn’t be worth it to fire them) and hence need to be their own bosses.  Or else they better have some kind of superstar talent that would trump their getting fired when engage in this stuff.  But even there, there are limits:  Charlie Sheen.Report

  12. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    doot doot doot doot dooooooo doot dootoot doot doot doot dootoooooooooot

    …is why they don’t want you to have a cell phone turned on during takeoff and landing.  GSM gallop is an actual thing, and if it interferes with pilot-to-tower communications you can end up landing on top of someone else, and that’ll ruin your trip real quick.

    “[I] highly doubt there is a substantive causal link with modern consumer electronics.”

    But there isn’t a substantiative lack of a link.  Which is where the FAA is coming from.  In the flight-safety world, “not shown to be a hazard” does not equate to “shown to be safe”.

    “But (thing) doesn’t have an RF data connection!”

    Are you sure?  Up until recently every Kindle had one built in.Report

    • Avatar Plinko in reply to DensityDuck says:

      To Mark’s point above, there are real, proven links to the ingestion of lead to brain damage and death , yet you vociferously oppose the CPSIA, these seem to be dissonant positions.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Plinko says:

        I oppose the CPSIA because the lead levels it requires aren’t based on anything but bellyfeel, the testing requirements are so poorly-defined as to be unworkable (it’s possible to interpret the tests as requiring Lego to test individual bricks for lead content, and then test them again after they are assembled into a toy), and the supply-chain management it’s trying to legislate into place is clumsy and poorly thought out.  I don’t have a problem with requiring lead-content testing, or requiring a chain of documentation for it.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to DensityDuck says:

      But there isn’t a substantive lack of a link.  Which is where the FAA is coming from.

      Granted.  That’s where they’re coming from.  It’s still stupid, since the entire basis for worrying about it is that a couple of high powered RF emitting military devices brought down helicopters back in the 80s.

      This is very bad generalization.  “That elephant totally went wild and tore the entire plane’s cargo compartment apart!  We’d better not allow animals on planes!”

      Now, it’s perfectly reasonable for the FAA to set some sort of trial and make consumer electronic manufacturers pay for it to quantify safety.  This would actually be the right way to go.  Run the test, get the sticker, and you can put your stuff on the plane.

      Why?  Because otherwise the rules change when the device manufacturers donate enough money to their congresscritters to get the congresscritters to lean on the FAA, at which point the FAA has to run the tests and we get to pay for it through our tax dollars.  And every Tom, Dick, or Harry manufacturer can get free RF testing for their cheap-ass electronics.

      Over-regulation is bad regulation.  Blanket banning of superclasses of devices is over-regulation, any way you slice it.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        You aren’t thinking like a bureaucrat.  You’re thinking like a guy who knows that his cell phone totally won’t cause any problems.

        A bureaucrat thinks “We can do a test on every conceivable class of device and emitter and verify that they’re all safe, and that will cost millions of dollars.  Or we can ban everything, which is free.”  The argument’s over before it even starts.Report

  13. Avatar Boegiboe says:

    There are some buildings where I work where my mobile phone can’t get a signal. If I fail to turn off my signal-searching (aka, if I fail to turn on “Airplane mode”) my battery will run down in less than an hour. That power, which otherwise lasts several days, is spent sending signals that are perceptible to the aircraft’s communication system, even if only a small amount.

    That is a LOT of power going out, looking for stuff. If you have a whole plane of devices doing that, I can totally believe the critical, one-time message (that DDuck pointed out) might be misheard or missed entirely. Most of the time it wouldn’t matter. If it interfered one one-thousandth of the time, we would have unacceptable rates of plane fatalities.

    You may say “The whole plane isn’t going to have their transmitters on all at once!” To which I would only look in your eyes until you take it back.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Boegiboe says:

      This is why I am more amenable on the subject of cell phones (at least with radios on). I’d still like to see the hazards demonstrated rather than saying “We can’t prove a negative, so we’ll assume a positive,” but more caution is warranted here than with, say, ebook readers or iPods and various other PEDs.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Boegiboe says:

      This doesn’t compute, though.

      Because this happens all the time, while the plane is in the air.  I have found not one credible source of a commercial aircraft pilot complaining that he had problems due to onboard RF interference.

      Aeronautical mobile and radio navigation signals aren’t even in the same frequency band as cellular phones, which are all UHF.  More here.

      Put another way, there are probably many, many times more unshielded RF emitting devices within 50 feet of where I’m sitting right now than there are even on a plane loaded with a bunch of Apple fanboys, across many more spectrums of interference, and a handheld unshielded ham radio works just fine.

      Unless and until I run into someone with lots more RF/telco experience than me explaining some glaring error, I’m sticking with, “This is bunk”.Report