January 1, 2013

Electronic devices on planes are dangerous...

... but not for the reason the FAA seems to want you to believe.
If progress [toward changing the rules] is slow, there will eventually be an episode on a plane in which someone is seriously harmed as a result of a device being on during takeoff. But it won’t be because the device is interfering with the plane’s systems. Instead, it will be because one passenger harms another, believing they are protecting the plane from a Kindle, which produces fewer electromagnetic emissions than a calculator.

30 comments:

edutcher said...

The "rules" are all about cowing the passengers, not protecting them.

Roger Zimmerman said...

This problem seems to me perfectly ripe for a free market solution: Let airlines decide on which devices they allow to be used during takeoffs and landings! Isn't that where the self-interest lies to make the appropriate (and competitively differentiated) tradeoff between safety and convenience? Don't these private companies have the wherewithal to investigate the (very simple) science that would feed into this decision?

True, this would require passengers to exercise some judgment as well. Oh, the horrors.

The FAA should have nada to say about this.

Michael K said...

The use of cell phones is annoying in close quarters like those on a plane. There is no justification for any of the other bans. Pilots use their electronic devices during take off and landing. The passengers can't see them. That's all.

ndspinelli said...

Althouse reason #215 not to fly.

Chip S. said...

OK, so the basis for the regulation is sketchy. (No planes have crashed b/c of illicit iPad use.)

OTOH, how whiny or addicted do you have to be to find it intolerable to stop playing Angry Birds during take-off and landing?

SMSgt Mac said...

This topic is of particular interest to me. To summarize my own post on the topic a couple of years ago:
Every time I fly, listening to the flight attendant's sincere directions containing the simplistic assertion that personal electronic devices (PEDs) may interfere with aircraft operations and directives that I must turn off my electronic devices ALMOST makes me forget I had just played a bit role in the latest episode of Security Theater.
I have DECADES of avionics systems laboratory and flight test experience, including conceiving, developing, and executing System and Subsystem EMI, ALT, HALT, Functional and Failure Mode Effects Test procedures. It is my considered opinon this issue is about lawyers, liability law and the inherent imperfection and fallibility of ANY man-made device, and the certainty of failure given enough time. Airframe manufacturers and airlines have a vested interest in pointing at the PEDs as the ‘problem’. It prevents them from having to deal with additional design requirements, testing and the associated costs or having to improve designs in existence to operate in the modern environment and servicing the techo-savvy public.
Unexplained cockpit ‘events’ may or may not have had something to do with operation of the personal electronics devices, but even if they did, they still not point towards root cause. The problem could be with the electronic devices OR aircraft systems, as the possible failure modes for either, while not infinite ARE inestimable. People often point to ‘older aircraft’ as perhaps particularly vulnerable. They should bum a ride in the back of General Electric’s engine test bed. It is one of the oldest 747s still flying, and during test missions you will find the back end filled to the max with rows and rows of equipment racks with panels off running at full tilt, ad hoc instrumentation data lines, laptops up and running, and guys on cell phones and radios talking to the data download facility, and the last I heard (from THE guy who would know) they’ve never had a problem.
The First Rule of Problem Solving: Who’s Problem Is It?
Any ‘incompatibility’ can be due just as easily to insufficient or unfortunate aircraft systems design, installation or maintenance as anything else. IMHO, the problem should be considered to be on the ‘airplane side’ since the purpose of the plane and airline is to serve the 21st Century travelling public vs. the other way around.

Chip S. said...

IMHO, the problem should be considered to be on the ‘airplane side’ since the purpose of the plane and airline is to serve the 21st Century travelling public vs. the other way around.

This is simply wrong. It's a question of costs and benefits.

If you eliminate one possible source of trouble, then you can more easily identify the true source and then fix it. If you simply "assume" that every problem is on the "airplane side" then airlines and aircraft companies will have to spend resources investigating every single instance.

Your position simply assumes that the costs of denying passengers use of their iPads for a few minutes imposes greater costs than the costs that airlines and their suppliers would incur in checking out every possibility.

I find that unlikely, but as Roger Z. said above, airlines could compete on this basis rather than have a regulatory agency impose one standard.

Alan said...

There's another problem with thee FAA and electronic devices. Airline pilots have to carry some 40 pounds of paper charts on every flight, and they have to update these charts constantly. The charts are available on electronic readers, where updating takes a click or two, but some regional FAA offices won't let the airlines use them. (Some other regional offices will.) The supposed risk is that the batteries might die, though as both pilots would have one that risk is tiny, and an onboard charger would cut even that tiny risk.

tim maguire said...

If there were the slightest cause to fear electronic devices, they would be confiscated by the TSA.

The mere fact that turning them off is left to the passengers is plain and conclusive evidence that there is no danger.

SMSgt Mac said...

RE: This is simply wrong. It's a question of costs and benefits.

No.
I assume the airlines exist to provide passenger goods and services. The shifting of burden to the traveling public, requiring them to engage in specific behaviors and limiting access to their PEDs under the premise of 'safety' is a form of rent-seeking.

Designing hardware and using operating procedures to meet the need of the market should be seen as the cost of doing business, for any business. If those costs rise because the market demands some good or service (and in this case I'd say the cost, per passenger over the life of the airframe, would be lost in the noise) then so be it.

Maguro said...

The mere fact that turning them off is left to the passengers is plain and conclusive evidence that there is no danger.

Quite. I'm sure a lot of passengers don't even bother powering down their cellphones as instructed and still, no planes falling out of the sky.

Chip S. said...

SSgt, your mistake is in thinking that the "cost" involved here is independent of the way in which it's dealt with. As a general rule, that's not true. Competition among airlines will presumably lead to the cost-minimizing way to deal w/ the problem. And "cost" must be understood to include the inconvenience to passengers.

There's a burden of some sort, by your own description. If the cost of that burden is lower when borne by the airlines, then they will bear that burden and fares on average will rise by the cost of that burden per passenger.

If the cost of that burden is lower when borne by the passengers, then fares will fall by the amount of that per-passenger burden.

If some airlines choose one strategy while others choose the other strategy, then passengers who put a high value on using their iPads at all times will be willing to pay the higher fares that allow them to do that. The passengers who don't value that ability very much will choose the lower-fare airline that restricts in-flight use.

One-size-fits-all regulation such as you favor ultimately restricts passengers' choices.

Will said...

This whole subject is b.s. http://www.apple.com/ipad/business/profiles/united-airlines/

cubanbob said...

The idea the PED affect the aircraft's avionics is dubious to say the least. It's really a mask to keep cell phones off and that is because at altitude the cell phones light up every tower for miles. It's for Verizon's and AT&T's benefit, not for the passanger's safety.

Maguro said...

The idea the PED affect the aircraft's avionics is dubious to say the least. It's really a mask to keep cell phones off and that is because at altitude the cell phones light up every tower for miles. It's for Verizon's and AT&T's benefit, not for the passanger's safety.

If leaving cellphones turned on in airplanes screwed up terrestrial cellphone networks, that would be a great reason to forbid their use. But it's not true.

If it were true, your cellphone just wouldn't work near airports because there are people on every single flight who don't turn off their phones. Multiply by the huge number of flights going in and out of each airport and cellphones just wouldn't work. But obviously, they do.

The real reasons the FAA clings to these restrictions are rather boring and non-technical. Bureaucratic inertia, extreme risk aversion and fear of the unknown. The usual reasons that obsolete laws and regulations seem to last forever.

Roger Zimmerman said...

@cubanbob said: ... at altitude the cell phones light up every tower for miles. It's for Verizon's and AT&T's benefit ...

I highly doubt that. It would be a pretty simple algorithm to choose a single (and very good, though not necessarily optimal) transceiver for a given phone signal - the necessary updating rate would be tractable even at 600 mph.

But, even if true, the problem is still amenable to the free market: for example, if it mattered enough, the phone companies could offer to pay airlines to forbid certain device use (and Kindles, e.g. would be completely moot), and the airline could choose to take that loot and pass on some of the savings to passengers in order to compete better of fares.

Roger Zimmerman said...

Oops, that should be:

"... take that loot and pass on some of it in lower fares to passengers, if that's their preferred way to compete."

David said...

This is an agency that makes the airlines tell us how to buckle our seatbelts. It's a combination of risk avoidance and regulatory inertia.

What's really fascinating are the blog comments whenever this subject is discussed on the internet who try to find some logical rationale for defending the regulations when even the FAA doesn't bother.

Aridog said...

Chip S. said...

OTOH, how whiny or addicted do you have to be to find it intolerable to stop playing Angry Birds during take-off and landing?

Agreed. Now retired I am no longer one of those preferred frequent travelers...now I am a peon shuffling aboard last for a shit seat.

You know what, the very last thing I need in my life is some idiot on board with me making life difficult for the staff, possibly causing delays, etc....or worse, not listening to notifications made over the intercom on board or in terminal.

If the airline says no PED's because they think you are smelly, ugly, or stupid or whatever, so be it. Turn the damn thing off. No one is forcing you to fly a given airline, or fly at all really.

There really are serious civil rights issues to remedy...in flight PED's is damn sure not one of them.

Alex said...

The whole TSA regimen is about stopping the last attack, not anticipating future ones. I mean honestly, when I look at these retarded obese TSA "agents" they don't inspire confidence in me.

cubanbob said...

Roger not being a signals engineer I can't argue one way or another about your comment regarding a simple algorithm.

I presume that you are correct technically but whether or not the existing towers can be adjusted is another matter. It's one thing to have the phone interrogated by every tower it picks up and another thing to actually carry the voice data over multiple towers simultaneously. That was what was told to me once by a fellow passenger who claimed to be in the business. Whether or not there is a simple and cheap fix for that problem if it exists is beyond my expertise.

If it isn't a problem why should anyone care if someone is just texting? I can see and understand the passenger irritant issue with people speaking loudly on the phone and disturbing others along with the noise from games.
The rudeness factor is sufficent for requiring people not to use them. There is no need for the safety guise if it isn't a real safety issue. Maybe I am old school I'm all in favor of old school rules that people ought to bathe before being confined tightly next to others along with being reasonably quiet and not being drunk and obnoxious. Flying was so much more pleasant before deregulation.

SMSgt Mac said...

RE: There's a burden of some sort, by your own description. If the cost of that burden is lower when borne by the airlines, then they will bear that burden and fares on average will rise by the cost of that burden per passenger.

Which is what I said:"If those costs rise because the market demands some good or service (and in this case I'd say the cost, per passenger over the life of the airframe, would be lost in the noise) then so be it."
I therefore do not mistake "thinking that the "cost" involved here is independent of the way in which it's dealt with". I observe that as long as the situation remains as is (and as the air travel industry very well knows) the true costs remain un-quantified, which in turn provides no incentive to reduce or eliminate them.

Finally, though I too got strait A's in Econ, and in my OR work the same skill sets are employed, I always keep in mind WHY Economics is the 'dismal science'. Via W.B. Cameron (or A. Einstein if you prefer): "...not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Michael said...

Over one hundred times a year i land or take off. Always listening to my ipod. I also never turn off my phone. I dont use it but i dont turn it off either

Michael said...

Over one hundred times a year i land or take off. Always listening to my ipod. I also never turn off my phone. I dont use it but i dont turn it off either

Aridog said...

Curiosity Question: I've noticed that when I am high in the rocky Mountains in Montana in and near Yellowstone, I connect with multiple towers if I am particularly high up...e.g., Beartooths or Mt Washburn, among other locations.

In those zones I can be kicking up Denver, or Jackson Hole, or Great Falls, among others...depending upon how I access the Internet with the laptop with WWAN I carry.

How does it determine which location that connects to me?

Same thing at home...I bounce between "Detroit" and "Dearborn" ...how come?

MadisonMan said...

A person who 'goes after' a fellow passenger for not following instructions re: PED is a bit of a tightly-wound control freak.

Bryan C said...

"Your position simply assumes that the costs of denying passengers use of their iPads for a few minutes imposes greater costs than the costs that airlines and their suppliers would incur in checking out every possibility."

Well, no. Not when the alleged consequences of their poor design are huge security vulnerabilities which could easily be exploited to cause catastrophic failure and death. As a great man once said, I'll believe it's a real problem when the people telling me it's a problem start acting like it's a real problem.

Bryan C said...

"Your position simply assumes that the costs of denying passengers use of their iPads for a few minutes imposes greater costs than the costs that airlines and their suppliers would incur in checking out every possibility."

Well, no. Not when the alleged consequences of their poor design are huge security vulnerabilities which could easily be exploited to cause catastrophic failure and death. As a great man once said, I'll believe it's a real problem when the people telling me it's a problem start acting like it's a real problem.

Peter said...

"This problem seems to me perfectly ripe for a free market solution ..."

The airlines don't want passengers using cellphones because they don't want to deal with the inevitable disputes they will cause.

But they don't want to be the ones to tell passengers to STFU. It's just easier for them to say, "They FAA requires this."

And so far FAA has been compliant/complicit. And why not? It's a solution that mostly works- for airlines and for passengers.

Crunchy Frog said...

A pilot friend once told me that the only real reason to restrict the use of PEDs was that in a crash (which is most likely to happen on takeoff) all those iPhones and Kindles become projectiles bouncing around the passenger compartment at triple-digit speeds. That's why everything is stowed away until the plane is safely at altitude.

It's no fun having your head split open by an iPad doing 180mph.