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What a turn-off: why your phone must be powered down on flights

It’s a fact of life for anyone boarding a plane: all electronic devices need to be turned off during take-off and landing. Most airlines have had this rule in place for more than a decade now, even though…

Not everyone heeds the advice to turn their phones off during take-off – but should they? Jetstar Airways

It’s a fact of life for anyone boarding a plane: all electronic devices need to be turned off during take-off and landing.

Most airlines have had this rule in place for more than a decade now, even though there has been no definitive documented instance in which passengers leaving their devices on caused a plane crash.

So why are we forced to stop listening to music or reading a Kindle during take-off and landing?

Many passengers simply ignore instructions, as shown by a recent US study, which found a third of passengers admit to not always turning off their devices during take-off and landing.

The US Federal Administration Authority (FAA) has responded to growing public scepticism to its “everything must be switched off” blanket rule by setting up a body to look into the issue and has started to slowly relax some rules.

Some US airline staff are now using iPads to replace paper flight manuals and get more information about their passengers.

Last month, British Airways became the first European airline to allow passengers to switch on their mobile phones just after landing.

What’s the point of airplane mode?

Frank Gruber

Airplane mode or flight mode is a setting available on most electronic devices, such as eReaders and smartphones, which suspends many of the device’s signal transmitting functions.

So why are we still asking passengers to completely power down all electronic devices before take-off and landing, especially when staff are allowed to use tablets?

The argument that electronic devices on a flight (commonly referred to in the industry as “portable electronic devices” or PEDs) have never resulted in a plane crash is beside the point.

As aviation expert and New York Times columnist Christine Negroni wrote recently, there actually have been reported cases of pilots reporting electronic devices interfering with flight systems on commercial flights - issues that subsequently disappeared when the flight crew spotted the offender(s).

In 2001, NASA put out a report compiling data on PEDs attributed to having anomalies with aircraft systems. The report concludes that:

the data clearly indicates that not only were some events judged as having a critical effect on a system, but they also happened during critical states of flight specifically landings and take-offs.

In 2003, it was found that a charter pilot had called home during a flight and the call remained connected. The plane crashed at Christchurch Airport when the plane flew into the ground short of the runway. Eight people died, including the pilot.

The investigation that ensued from the New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission stated that the pilot’s mobile phone may have interfered with the plane’s navigation system.

AdamLogan

In 2011, the ABC in the US reported on a confidential report from the International Air Transport Association STEADS program which uses data provided by the world’s airlines.

The database showed 75 events over the past seven years in which interferences occurred that pilots and engineers think are linked to cellphones or other electronic devices.

And even in airplane mode, a smartphone still emits some electromagnetic radiation, as do devices that can’t connect to the internet, such as MP3 players.

A systems approach to aviation safety

Safety in commercial aviation is not to be viewed as an isolated aspect but as being part of a larger system made up of many interlinked avionics components.

For example, do you think those in-flight safety demonstrations and airplane seatbelts are useless? They’re not.

victorillen

New generation aircraft are more robust and better shielded to electromagnetic interference - disturbance affecting an electrical circuit due to either electromagnetic induction or radiation emitted by an external source - but how many passengers know how old the aircraft they’re boarding actually is?

Another argument that usually comes up involves the use of in-flight Wi-Fi that is offered by certain airlines. If there’s in-flight internet, why can’t I use my phone on the plane?

But those systems are tested and verified according to the aircraft model and the overall system they’re part of - and some don’t make the cut.

There have been reports of electromagnetic interference testing for particular in-flight Wi-Fi systems that showed interference with aircraft avionics display units.

International inconsistencies

It is also worth pointing out that there are no set international rules on precisely when passengers are allowed to turn on their devices. Most US airlines only allow their use above 10,000 feet (about 3km in altitude).

When landing, some airlines prefer to wait until the plane reaches the gates (as most Australian airlines do) while in China passengers typically pull out their phones as soon as the wheels hit the runway.

In recent years, there have been several moves, as previously discussed, to allow more extensive use of electronics devices in-flight, and the discussion on the matter is still going.

Is your mobile phone going to take an entire aircraft down just because you texted your better half? Probably not.

But what you can potentially create is a distraction to the pilots and aircraft crew and if that happens at the wrong time (say during critical flight phases like take-off or landing) then it may have an impact on safety - is it really worth that risk?

Join the conversation

42 Comments sorted by

  1. John Smithton

    Consultant

    Yes, I accept there is a risk, but like some other aspects of aviation safety, I wonder, and still wonder after this article if the risk is minor compared to other risks we face in life. The author outlines a series of scenarios, but unless I misread this, nobody has yet died anywhere in the world for reasons comprehensively linked to the use of portable electronic devices (PED) on planes - especially in flight mode.

    As opposed to people probably dying all of the time due to the use PEDs by drivers, for example. Not that I condone the use of PEDs by drivers at all, but if safety messages were screened to make sure that the risks were both real and high enough to be significant to the general public, and not just a scenario, the public make take them more seriously. Such as not using PEDs when driving.

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  2. Chris O'Neill

    Retired Way Before 70

    Well I hope the airports turn off their extremely powerful radars whenever a plane is taking off or landing.

    This article is a joke.

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    1. Ben Brooker

      inquisitive go-getter

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Chris,

      Radars and PEDs, quite different.
      RADAR (stands for RAdio Detecting And Ranging) and hence uses pulses specifically designed NOT to interfere with aircraft.

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    2. Graham Lamb

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Obviously avionics fitted to the aircraft and used at the airport are tested an certified, the problem with PEDs is that new models are coming out all the time and although they are unlikely to cause problems the consequences are great compared to the slight inconvenience. Aviation has become an amazingly safe form of transport because of this cautious approach

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    3. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Ben Brooker

      What do pulses have to do with it? The problem appears to be systems inside the cockpit that are susceptible to EMI because of mediocre design. External transmitters such as radar would not normally cause a problem here because the plane's shell is a very good conducting screen.

      Unfortunately, there is not normally such a good screen between the cockpit and the rest of the interior of the plane and avionics designers appear to often assume that their systems will operate in an environment of negligible…

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    4. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to John Phillip

      The article means the aircraft designers are either taking unnecessary risks by using cheaper vulnerable components or they're not.

      Which do you think is most likely?

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    5. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to John Phillip

      So you think aircraft designers are taking unnecessary risks by using cheaper vulnerable components.

      Tell me, how do feel about travelling on a plane that is designed like that?

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    6. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Chris, you are the one making the claim that the design and/or fit out is a compromise and THEN going on to say that the article's conclusion that we should follow the guidelines and switch off electronic devices when asked is rubbish:
      "The problem appears to be systems inside the cockpit that are susceptible to EMI because of mediocre design"
      "The article is a joke."
      Ben Brooker clearly explained the difference to between radar and PEDs:
      "Radars and PEDs, quite different. RADAR (stands for RAdio Detecting And Ranging) and hence uses pulses specifically designed NOT to interfere with aircraft."
      So can you justify not following protocols?

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    7. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to John Phillip

      "you are the one making the claim that the design and/or fit out is a compromise"

      No. I'm not. Didn't you notice where I used the word "either":

      "The article means the aircraft designers are EITHER taking unnecessary risks by using cheaper vulnerable components or they're not.

      Which do you think is most likely?"

      So go back and answer that question instead of going off on a tangent.

      By the way, Ben Brooker did not explain, clearly or otherwise, the relevant difference between radars and PEDs. Pulses have nothing to do with it.

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    8. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Chris, you have made an accurate detection of a semantic error, so I'll go back to an earlier statement of yours which I think covers my point well:
      "Unfortunately, there is not normally such a good screen between the cockpit and the rest of the interior of the plane and avionics designers appear to often assume that their systems will operate in an environment of negligible EMI. This hardly seems like a safe design assumption to me and as the citation points out: http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/wi-fi-interference-with-honeywell-avionics-prompts-boeing-354179

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    9. Ben Brooker

      inquisitive go-getter

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Chris you are a Telecommunication Engineer, so I assume you have a reasonable understanding about radas?

      As an electrical engineer my undertaking is that pulses are used to detect aircraft distances and to communicate, typical using radar mode S. I am aware that there is more to it than pulses, but I'm also aware of the modification made to SSRs (Secondary Surveillance Radar) that as I previous stated are specifically designed/altered/modifed NOT to interfere with the aircraft navigational systems.

      Maybe Wikipedia* can explain it better:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secondary_surveillance_radar

      * Also just because its on Wikipedia does not assume its accurate but the references to this page seems repeatable.

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    10. Ben Brooker

      inquisitive go-getter

      In reply to Ben Brooker

      sorry about the spelling in the final sentence, should have read:

      Also just because it's on Wikipedia does not assume its accurate but the references to this page seem repeatable.

      and 'previous' should have been 'previously'.

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    11. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Ben Brooker

      "specifically designed/altered/modifed NOT to interfere with the aircraft navigational systems"

      Anything that uses a different frequency from the navigation frequencies could be said to be "designed" NOT to interfere with the navigation. So radar, mobile phones etc, etc which use a different frequency could all be said to be "designed" NOT to interfere with the navigation simply because they use different frequencies. You can look at VHF Omnidirectional Range here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VHF_omnidirectional_range

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    12. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to John Phillip

      "avionics designers appear to often assume that their systems will operate in an environment of negligible EMI"

      Actually, I was mistaken about that in my reading of that citation. The avionics designers do usually choose display systems that are resistant to EMI. That article pointed out one case from more than 2 years ago where a particular version of display unit was not up to scratch in its resistance to EMI from Wifi transmitters. The article pointed out that the "Honeywell issue" was being addressed. I would expect that the issue would have been dealt with in an appropriate time frame.

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  3. Peter John Finlayson

    Medical Director

    Some time ago I was flying on an Australian, commercial, domestic flight and the pilot came onto the intercom and asked all passengers to please check their mobile phones. He said that someone had one turned on and it was interfering with his navigation. A few minutes later, when all the passengers had dived for their phones, he came back on the intercom and said "thank you" as the mobile phone was now turned off and his navigation system was working correctly.
    Since then I have had a great deal of respect when the crew request that all electronic devices are turned off.....

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  4. Rick Sullivan

    Vast and Various

    Such a sad, uneventful, lonely world many must live in, when - just for safety's sake - they cannot wait a few minutes to see if someone wants to talk to them. Why not talk to other passengers, read a book or, even more daring, get some sort of life?

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    1. Rick Sullivan

      Vast and Various

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Try some quiet time - the unfilled moment, take a tiny break. You'll see. It's not that hard.

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  5. Patrick F

    Student

    It is interesting that authorities and companies are apparently content to ignore evidence-based research when it suits them (ie. in this case, there apparently isn't any). The Economist 1.17.2012 states -

    "...For the ban exists not (as the public is often led to believe) because mobiles disrupt an aircraft’s sensitive avionics, but rather to stop them playing havoc with the phone companies' receiving equipment on the ground that is trying to handle their calls..."

    I see at petrol stations mobile phones can also cause instant conflagrations when drivers fill up but has one ever happened anywhere in the world?

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    1. John Smithton

      Consultant

      In reply to Patrick F

      And judging from the comments on this thread, we are confusing two issues - transmitting PEDS (cellphones in normal mode) and non-transmitting PEDS (phones in flight mode, a set of powered headphones). I see no issue in switching off cellphones - but still fail to see how and why my Kindle in flight mode is going to cause an issue.

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  6. Richard Hockey

    logged in via Facebook

    "When landing, some airlines prefer to wait until the plane reaches the gates (as most Australian airlines do) while in China passengers typically pull out their phones as soon as the wheels hit the runway."
    Not my experience in Australia. More often than not phones are permitted on touch down.
    BTW terrible article, just a string of unsubstantiated reports.

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    1. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Richard Hockey

      "More often than not phones are permitted on touch down."

      And then there are some airports (Gold Coast e.g.) where you have to switch off the phone before you get off the plane and walk across the tarmac. I suspect this is related to the ill-informed belief that mobile phones are capable of setting airport fuel containers on fire.

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  7. John Welch

    logged in via Facebook

    What a wishy-washy article. May have, could have, there are reports of, pilots think might have and on it goes. The PEDs that were in existence in 2001 would have been steam powered! As for the NZ pilot who crashed his plane, I think the greater risk was him using the phone, rather than the phone itself. 75 events over the last 7 years. Given the number of flights and corresponding incidents, you could pretty well ignore this. The scare tactics just don't cut it.

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    1. Graham Lamb

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Welch

      Aviation has become extremely safe by adopting a conservative attitude to safety, a belt and braces regime. I would not be happy with allowing passengers to use any old device if we can't be sure of it's safety, how can we know that the latest new device won't cause a problem. The probability of disaster is very low but the consequences are great and the inconvenience exceedingly small.

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    2. John Welch

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Graham Lamb

      Graham, I should have made the point that as a scholarly article, this is ordinary. There is no hard information,only vague assertions - That's what annoyed me . Its as if a Current Affair used their tabloid journalism to write the article.

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  8. Rick Sullivan

    Vast and Various

    All these posts. Some arguing PEDs are a risk, some saying they aren't. Why risk your own and other people's safety? Is it that important to be off the phone for a short period of time? But, I'm being unfair; why not have some flights that allow people to use PEDs without limits, and other flights that don't allow them to be used at takeoff and landing? Then EVERYONE'S rights would be respected. I'd definitely be on the second kind of flight. I certainly wonder about Techno-addicts who just can't live without that phone/Kindle/tablet/whatever at the fingertips at all times. I like taking in what's happening around me. I must've got old somewhere.

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    1. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Rick Sullivan

      "I'd definitely be on the second kind of flight."

      I'd be taking the cheapest flight.

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    2. Rick Sullivan

      Vast and Various

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Ha ha yeah. You take the cheapie. I'll take the safey. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I saw an article on Myth Busters that confirmed you can start a fire at a fuel station with a mobile phone. Also, I'm no expert, but I'm sure I've heard that bombs have been set off by mobile phone signals? Just sayin'.

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    3. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Rick Sullivan

      Yeah I'm taking the safey too. And keeping my money.

      "I think I saw an article on Myth Busters that confirmed you can start a fire at a fuel station with a mobile phone. correct me if I'm wrong"

      Yep, you're wrong: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeRJkde7iHo

      "I'm no expert, but I'm sure I've heard that bombs have been set off by mobile phone signals?"

      So you think they're trying to thwart someone from setting off a bomb as they're walking to the terminal but have no control if they set it off after they get to the terminal??

      I don't think so.

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    4. Rick Sullivan

      Vast and Various

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Well there ya go. I found an expert. Knows it all. Good. Let's leave him with his earphones in, one hand on his mobile and the other who knows where.

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    5. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Rick Sullivan

      Obviously you didn't really mean it when you said "correct me if I'm wrong".

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    6. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      While we're on the subject of mythbusters, this is from the Mythbusters database: http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/mythbusters/mythbusters-database/cell-phones-interfere-plane-instruments.htm :

      "too many phone-happy jetsetters might clog up the networks on the ground, which is why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — not the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) — banned cell use on planes"

      and here is the annotation of episode 49: Cell phones disrupt airplane navigation: mythbusted…

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  9. Forgetful Orange

    logged in via Twitter

    And no one can design a plane without the using the frequencies that coincide with the frequencies used by navigational instruments?

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  10. Steve Pan
    Steve Pan is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Student

    There is an important aspect that is missing from this article (and the comments) regarding a potential problem happening during take off / landing.

    If every pax has electronic devices with cables (external HDD), head phones (plugged into ears), etc., this would create a problem to evacuate the plane. Then there is also the problem of pax not hearing any safety warnings due to headphones and being distracted from the task at hand, to evacuate everyone as calmly and quickly as possible.

    This is something that is rarely mentioned but should be emphasised in a debate like this.

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  11. MItchell Lennard

    Researcher - Distributed Energy Systems

    Once again I am just gob smacked that so many people who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about feel the need to post comments on complex technical issues. I hold EASA and CASA design authorisation approvals for civil aircraft avionics design and integration, I am a consulting engineer specialising in aircraft system safety analysis and EMC and I can assure you that the article is reasonable and the conclusions are sound.

    The interaction between PEDs and aircraft system is complex…

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    1. Graham Lamb

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to MItchell Lennard

      Good informative post Mitchell.

      As I have suggested previously, aviation's amazing safety record is due to this conservative approach.

      I find it somewhat alarming that passengers are willing to disregard the rules because they think they know better.

      When you board an airliner you do surrender some autonomy in the name of safety, there are items we cannot take in our hand luggage, some of the items might never have caused an accident in the past but it is the potential, we don't wait for an accident in order to try to mitigate risks.

      As far as I am concerned, if the man or woman at the pointy end wants it switched off I am happy to comply

      The airlines approach to this issue is no different to their approach to other safety issue.

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  12. Tim Lele

    PR Consultant

    The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association's position on aircraft interference (http://www.amta.org.au/files/AMTA.position.on.mobile.phone.use.in.aircraft.2013) offers a few more insights into the reasons why mobile phone use is restricted by many airlines:

    In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has banned the use of mobile phones while airborne because of potential interference with terrestrial mobile networks, however a recent study by the US Federal Aviation Administration…

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  13. Peter Blackwell

    Supply Chain Consultant - realist

    Oh dear - I havent turned my phone off for years ! If interference was such an issue signal blockers are inexpensive and readily available - although illegal for the layman to possess in Australia.

    They could be installed on any/all planes where concerns exist - the same as they should be installed near queues at the Post Office, McDonalds and anywhere else ignorant fools think it is OK to answer their phone whilst being served, so the rest of us listen to their purile conversations !!!

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