Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Raise Your Hand Held if You Use Your Gadget on the Plane

Gadget firmly in hand at 30,000 feet

 Well in all my years writing for The New York Times, I've never found my email inbox filled with so many disgruntled reader comments first thing in the morning.  One reader claimed to be "dismayed" by my story suggesting that use of portable electronic devices on airplanes could be a safety hazard. Another reader suggested that I was "a liberal left-wing news reporter" too saturated in college with left wing communist views," (a Baptist college in Georgia?) And anyway, didn't I know that the television show MythBusters debunked the effect of EMI on airplane instruments?

Okay, okay, I confess, I've never seen MythBusters, so I went back to David Carson of Boeing, one of the subjects in my surprisingly controversial story which was published in Tuesday's Business section, and apparently was the most viewed story of the day. Had he seen this television program? Apparently he had. So had the other members of the RTCA - the committee advising the FAA on the safety of passenger gadgets on airplanes. They'd all seen the show.
"The reaction was unanimous from pilots to engineers that the 'testing' they did could not have proven anything about the actual operational impact - or lack of it - from portable electronic devices " Not only is it difficult, requiring rigorous testing, David told me, but often, as Doug Hughes, another committee member put it, "EMI leaves no scratch marks". In other words, EMI can wreak havoc and get away without leaving a trace.

Look, there are a lot of folks enthusiastic about bringing portable electronic devices on board, starting with passengers. Who wants to hold back that tide? More than that, lots of businesses are heavily invested in the lucrative retail possibilities of five and one half million people a day becoming captive customers on airliners. Last summer, with a big Ta-Dah!, United Airlines provided Zune digital players on long-haul flights. 

"Connectivity enables an airline to do a lot of things," said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst at Forrester Research. "Right now it is an enabler for airlines to be able to sell more things in flight." (For more on this read my Times story here.)

But I digress. The real question, the I'm-scratchin'-my-head-here-Chrissy-but-I-just don't-buy-it question is this; If everyone is ignoring the flight attendants gamely trying to enforce a no cellphone/iPad/Kindle/Gameboy below 10 thousand feet, and nothin's happened yet, what's the problem?

Here's the problem. No less than 10 U.S. airline pilots reported 13 events in which they felt electronic devices affected cockpit instruments. In Atlanta, I am told - though I have not confirmed this myself - two pilots on two separate flights reportedly claimed their communication with air traffic control was garbled due to interference with cell phone conversations on the plane.

People familiar with EMI phenomenon can only wonder what role it played in disasters dating back to the 1960  mid air collision of a TWA and a United Airlines airliner over New York, to a number of more recent events including the crash of a charter flight in New Zealand.

Admittedly, there's a Lot with a capital "L" of uncertainty in this area, but one thing Doug Hughes said is crystal clear and worth repeating. "There are four or five elements in airline safety a key one is the passenger."

At a time when travelers complain the airlines make them feel powerless, this is one area where safety is firmly and literally in their hands. 


Anonymous said...

"Here's the problem. No less than 10 U.S. airline pilots reported 13 events in which they felt electronic devices affected cockpit instruments. In Atlanta, I am told - though I have not confirmed this myself - two pilots on two separate flights reportedly claimed their communication with air traffic control was garbled due to interference with cell phone conversations on the plane."

A small thought experiment: Given there are ~37,000 flights a day in the US, of which I'd venture 90% have at least one person who've left their phone / ipod / etc on.

Assuming those 13 events occurred over the past 10 years, that's 13 events over 120 Million flights. While I have no doubt that the pilots are reporting these "events" in good faith, to my knowledge there has been no REPLICABLE case study of personal electronics interference in the history of global aviation.

I'd suggest there's bigger "problems" to investigate.

Christine Negroni said...

Anonymous, 13 is not the sum total, its the only number available publicly in the United States through one source.

You are correct, there certainly are bigger issues. It is my impression that the safety folks are saying that the risk benefit analysis comes down on the side of caution. Just how important is the use of PEDs below 10k and what is the risk?

This comment has been removed by the author.

"I'd suggest there's bigger 'problems' to investigate." until a beloved of your's caught in an air crash, Anonymous. Then you will probably sue the company, won't ya? And let's also consider here that a bigger problem can be viewed as an emergence of little problems, huh?

Good post, Chrissy!

Dick Newman said...


I know of two documented instances where PDAs/cell phones caused autopilots to change intended flight paths. One was on a test flight; the other on a scheduled air carrier.

These are reasonably well documented. There are any number of undocumented anecdotal reports. I think the ban on portable electronics is appropriate.

Anonymous said...

Lets not let facts get in the way of our emotions and desire.

Can't spend too much time on this, but I've worked on heavy commercial jets for almost 20 years. I've worked airframes, engines, avionics.....everything nose to tail. I'll never claim to be an expert on all things, but I'm qualified enough to be credible.

In my not so humble opinion Those who choose to paint this as a simple black & white issue unintentionally reveal their relative ignorance on the subject. I can personally attest to avionics anomalies that were exacerbated by local RF from cell phones.

If a pundit can't describe all of the crucial interactions and crosstalk that occurs between avionics components on a CAT III approach or autoland, then they're not qualified to casually dismiss cell phone RF as a non factor during that same procedure.

Jay Donoghue said...

This is an annoying issue because it seems to most people that the aviation folks are being overly sensitive to EMI dangers. I, too, would think it very unlikely that these things would have a bad effect on aircraft systems or communication if I was not aware of confirmed events, one in which the captain did a little test to confirm the effect. We just have to suck it up and turn the devices off for a few minutes.

olivier said...

I used to be involved in the marketing of a GSM based service deployed already in over 10 airlines. Basically, the company put in an antenna during one of the checks or better on the aircraft production line and what is called a pico cell - a small range cellular reception system. The picocell then uses a broadband antena deployed on aircraft for satelite communication to relay the signal to ground stations. The GSM phones have the possibility to reduce their transmission power, max being 3w, min being 0.3w. When the phone turns on and its signal captured by the pico cell, the pico cell tells the phone to lower its transmission signal to the minimum. The reason is that if all the phones on board are transmitting at maximum power, there is a risk of Electro-Magnetic Interference (EMI) which can disrupt some sensitive avionics. The second and more important issue is that ground towers from cell phone companies can capture signals up to 20k feet or more depending on atmospheric conditions, and definitely for all the phones below 10k feet which are turned on. But the software managing the handling of calls between towers for people on the move is designed to handle car speeds and not plane speeds, ie, several signals moving at over 200mph on an aircraft wreck havoc in the cell phone company systems. So, as avionics are crucial on take off and landing, and ground towers are affected in case the system is off before you reach the cruising altitude, a ban is imposed on these types of services below 10k feet.

Richard said...

I've spent most of my life in aviation maintenance, including 7 years as an FAA Safety Inspector. As my wise Airworthiness Sup once said to me, if you see it once, it's a trend. In aviation there aren't wide enough margins of safety. If on a CAT III approach on some dark and stormy night, do you want the guy next to you to flip open his phone and test all this theory? I didn't think so either.

Anonymous said...

Hi again - I was the original poster.
Christine - I cheerfully concede that there may have been more events (in fact NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System lists 50 PED related reports since 2001.)

While the final sentence of my post was unhelpfully hyperbolic and technically inaccurate, my point remains a broader one: Over the past 10 years, there have probably been over 130M flights in the US and 250M+ around the world where PED's have been left on and yet not one national aviation body has conclusively linked a significant incident to the use PEDs.

While I don't doubt that these devices could interfere in some circumstances with avionics, I reckon the key question is what do we do about it? We have effectively "rolled the dice" a quarter of a billion times and nothing has happened. Perhaps this is due to the eternal vigilance of the aviation safety champions reminding us to turn off our devices, or maybe in the scheme of things it's just not a significant risk.

I am grateful to the aviation specialists and electronic engineers who pursue this research in a fast moving field - but it strikes me there's still nothing new to report that is of any significance to the average passenger. And that was at the heart of my criticism of your report in the NYT - I do not believe it presented anything new.

More generally, I find it frustrating that the blind adoption of so-called "precautionary principles" can significantly increase other less visible risks e.g. how largely irrational and ineffective airport security measures leads to the death of thousands of additional people a year by redirecting people to road travel. http://aem.cornell.edu/faculty_sites/gb78/wp/fatalities_120505.pdf

That said, I have no problems with turning off my phone and quite enjoy not having to sit next to some loud-mouthed cretin telling his or her spouse that they're on a plane. Gotta love noise cancelling headphones!
All the best,

Christine Negroni said...

This is a very gracious second comment, thank you. In searching through the ASARs I separated all reports in which suspected EMI was reported to include only those in which the pilot had some specific reason to believe a particular device was the problem. This is why your number and mine are not the same. Keep in mind also that ASARS is only one database and it is only one country.

'Nuff said on this point.

To your comment that nothing new was presented in the story, I'd argue that this certainly is considered "new" by readers and television viewers as the story has been picked up by news organizations around the world. Many people wonder why they are asked to turn off their PEDs and lacking any clear explanation or explanation they could believe, they made the decision to disregard the under 10k restriction.

At the end of the day an acceptable action might be for passengers to refrain from using portable handheld electronic devices below 10,000 feet. It does not seem too much to ask.

Jim said...

Two real-life examples, determined when conducting a test. I took my Cessna on a flight with my, and my passenger's, cellphones turned on. The first effect was obvious - you can hear the periodic tak-takka-tak-takka-tak in the headsets as the cellphones searched for a tower. There is a cross-talk between a cellphone and the radio avionics (these radios are not Radio Shack equipment, they are all certified avionics). Some of my Big Iron pilot friends also have overheard passenger's cellphone conversations on their headsets.

Secondly, when a cell is having trouble finding a tower, it will increase power. At one (very rural) point in the flight the GPS lost all satellites and could not regain them - until we turned off both cellphones. Again, this was not a Best Buy automobile GPS, but a certified avionics unit (aka $18,000 installed).

In fairness, the distances between our cellphone units and the antennas was a lot less than you'll get in a 737. But we had only 2 units, not a cabin-full. And we were flying day VFR, not doing a CAT III approach at minimums.

Finally, one FAA regulation is that passengers are required to follow directions from all flight crew members. "Flight Crew Members" are not solely the pilots, but include the cabin crew. If they say "turn them all off and leave them all off" then, irrespective of the arguments whether the aircraft avionics are affected or not, there is a Real Nasty penalty if you do not follow the directions.

a raccoon said...

I have a side comment I'd like to make, seeing as this wasn't mentioned in the story.

Portable handheld devices are changing technologies at a rapid pace, faster than FAA regulations can keep up. This is a problem for the case for portable devices, since prudence is always the best course of action when it comes to public safety.

Certainly many of these reports of EMI interference with cellphones and "pagers" (do people still use pagers?!) occurred with older analogue cellular technology, which no longer exists, that depended on higher power levels in lower frequency bands which posed greater risks for interference.

Newer digital devices, however, are utilizing technologies that are changing at breakneck speeds, and it would be impossible for the FAA to manage regulations that kept up with every technology advance... which radio bands and modulations are safe or unsafe, and which of these devices use which bands, and are these devices living up to standards in safety (or are they cheap Chinese knock-offs?).

Many people argue that their cellphone/iPad/etc has an "Airplane Mode" which physically shuts off the radio, making the device "safe to use on an airplane" according to manufacturers. They are correct in their observation, however, we are dealing with 10's of millions of passengers each day, many of which don't exactly know how to use all the features of their portable device. In the defense of flight attendants everywhere, it would be impossible to advise and educate passengers to turn on this Airplane Mode, considering many of them still can't figure out the seatbelt buckle.

In summary: Regulations are written with consideration for the lowest common denominator in passenger intelligence; which is pretty low. Just be proud that you actually own a PED and feel free to show it off when the pilot shuts off the seatbelt light.

jwenting said...

There are several problems here:
1) people see the banning of their cellphones as just a way for the airlines to sell more airphone time at excessive prices (in part this was probably the case to ban them in the first place, the FAA isn't into regulating things away unless there's an accident that proves it's dangerous)
2) a lot of PEDs don't radiate, yet still are banned. This is because it's a blanket policy. Of course the blanket policy makes things easier for the crew (see people using a gadget, tell them not to), but for the passengers it again is an irate overresponse to what's perceived as a non-problem (and getting worse, with modern eReaders for example being totally inert but still showing a screen, eInk isn't powered, and users know it but they still can't use it).
3) people being told they can't use a device like a smartphone over 10k feet even with the phone function turned off and thus not transmitting, it's no different from any other pda at that point. Again the blanket policy bites.
4) sometimes passengers seeing flight- and cabincrew using PEDs at times they're not allowed to use them themselves (yes, I've seen it myself). If it's so dangerous to use those things, why are crew allowed to use them?
4a) this is especially true in hospitals, where visitors and patients aren't allowed to use their cellphones but nurses and doctors are constantly yapping away at the things. There's a big crossover from that into aircraft, as the reason stated for visitors and patients having to turn them off is the same: possible interference with sensitive equipment. In hospitals those bans are now slowly being removed, making the ban in aircraft appear even more ludicrous, if I can use it next to a heart monitor, where interference can kill granny, why can't I use it in the back of an airliner where I'm 100ft from the cockpit where the instruments are it supposedly interferes with (I know the avionics boxes can be anywhere in an aircraft, most passengers don't even know those boxes exist, they think everything is in the cockpit except the engines).

So what we have is a problem of perception, deception, and attitude I doubt will disappear any time soon.
It'd take several crashes of major airliners where it's proven beyond doubt (and presented in a way laypeople can understand by people those same laypeople trust, hard to do when anyone in authority is so severely mistrusted, from scientists to the FAA to DHS to politicians to reporters) that PEDs do (not can, theoretically, but DO) cause crashes leading to major loss of life that people will be sheep and turn everything off. I don't want that to happen, and I doubt you do either, nor the airlines or the FAA.

As to using those things on flights: I've at times forgotten to turn off my cellphone (it's usually tossed in a bag which gets stuffed in an overhead and forgotten about until after landing), but that's it. I will use my eReader though, knowing it's not radiating anything even if the cabincrew doesn't know it :)

Anonymous said...

What about separating the argument such that electronic devices (including an iPhone / iPad on airplane mode) and actively connected phones are considered differently?

In the case of an iPhone on airplane mode or a Kindle or an MP3 player, what is the actual amount of electrical interference generated? Most references to intereference involve active telephone connections.

If there is (as I strongly suspect) essentially zero electrical interference from a standard, solid state consumer electronic device, why treat it as the same as functioning phone?

Further, (as many others have pointed out), if the risks of crashing an airplane via electrical interference were real, it is odd that terrorists wouldn't have simply souped up the electrical output of a cell phone and brought it onto a flight. The lack of any such plots is not evidence of their ignorance of EE, but of the extremely low risk level inherent in that activity.

Seems that our concern that there *might* be a crash risk given X,Y,Z and D factors all simultaneoulsy occuring is really irrational, given that we accept far greater risks when eating, walking across the road, driving and countless other activities each day.

Anonymous said...

If you want to use your PED and not wear your selt belt, buy your own airplane, operate it from your own airport and stay in your own airspace. If you can't afford to buy your own plane, airport and country, then every time you fly you are a guest onboard someone elses aircraft or in someone elses airspace, and they all have rules.

No smoking, wear your selt belt when the sign is illuminated, seat backs upright and tray tables stowed for take off and landing, turn your PEDs to flight mode and then turn them off and leave them off until the seatbelt sign is off.

There is actually no arguement for you to make here. Rules are rules. Do what you're told. And my desire is that all passengers would back up their flight stewards and pressure all offenders to turn them off and leave them off.