Home > ipad, mobile > Electronic discrimination in the skies

Electronic discrimination in the skies

If you’ve ever been on a plane, you’ve probably heard those announcements right before take-off and landing asking passengers to turn off all electronic devices. For kicks, I sometimes refuse to, just to hear what excuses flight staff come up with for why I should.

There’s the popular one, about how electronics with connection technologies - the likes of cellphones, laptops, iPads - can interfere with the plane’s navigational systems. If that were true, I don’t know why would-be terrorists would go through the trouble of smuggling in shoe bombs or explosives packed in liquid containers when all they would need to do to cause catastrophe is turn on their phone.

I looked into this a couple years back while I was at the National Post (alas, I can’t find the article online, otherwise I’d link to it) and found that the real reason cellphones can’t be used on planes is because, in the event that their signals are strong enough, they play havoc with networks on the ground. Because planes move so fast, phones can jump quickly from cell tower to cell tower, which can ultimately cause a big roaming mess. Cellphone carriers wouldn’t know how to bill their customers. That’s why the Federal Communications Commission bans use on planes, unless such connections run through special in-flight systems.

Nevertheless, the debate continues. ABC News had a recent report on a confidential airline industry report that questioned whether using phones on board really is safe but, as a former Air Force and commercial pilot put it, there really is no proof either way.

In any event, I’ve never actually tried to use a cellphone on a plane, and not because of the potential interference issue. Sitting next to someone on a bus while they chat away is annoying enough; having to do it on a plane would be intolerable. My mom raised me to have better manners than that.

But what happens when the particular gizmo you’re using doesn’t actually have any sort of wireless connection, or it’s turned off in airplane mode? Why, in that case, do the flight staff still want you to shut it down?

Such was the case Thursday night, when I was flying back in to Toronto from a PlayStation press event in New York. I was reading a book on my iPad when the flight attendant told me to turn it off. I ignored her and, when she returned and told me again, I asked her why. She whipped out another excuse I’ve heard before, which is that the device could fly out of my hands while landing and nail someone in the head.

True enough, but so could a book. Getting beaned with a hardcover copy of Sex, Bombs and Burgers hurts just as much (trust me, I tested it - and yes, that is a cheap plug).

Failing that, she tried another excuse - that the staff needed my full attention while landing in case of emergency. Again, fair enough - but, I asked, why weren’t the people reading books and magazines asked to put those away? Her answer made me chuckle: apparently, any flight attendant who didn’t ask passengers to stow their printed reading material was being negligent.

I finally put my iPad away, which made her happy, but then she did the unbelievable - she walked right by my friend, seated in the row ahead of me, and completely ignored the fact that he was reading a book. I asked if he had heard our exchange and he said, “Yup.” We shared a laugh.

But seriously - what’s with the double standard? This was far from an isolated incident. Airline staff always crack down on electronic devices, transmitting or not, but are fine with printed matter (including the airline’s own magazines stuffed into the seat pockets). The conspiracy-minded would say it’s because laptops, iPods and iPads are sucking away revenue from airlines’ pay-per-use entertainment systems, but I don’t believe it’s that simple.

That said, I can’t explain it as anything other than electronic discrimination. When will our gadgets finally get equal treatment? Can’t we all just get along?

Categories: ipad, mobile
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  1. Marc Venot
    July 21, 2011 at 4:16 am | #1

    The fuselage of the plane form a faraday cage so it’s more than improbable that those rather weak gizmos (if in their regular state) are able to create any trouble. The question is then how to ensure that they are still inside the legal limits, maybe by forbidding to jail their OS?

    Larger planes provide a little more breathing space per passenger than the previous generation so the neighbours should trouble less. This important factor may be taken soon into the marketing call of the airlines companies?

  2. Eric Hacke
    July 21, 2011 at 9:45 am | #2

    Considering the lengths they go to to ensure that you don’t have a pair of scissors on you, if there was the slightest chance that electronic devices could bring down a plane they’d be doing cavity searches for iPhones. At the very least they’d ask that everyone put their devices in a faraday cage-like container and stowed during flight.

    At some point someone made a rule of “no electronic devices during takeoff/landing” and that will continue to be the rule until someone very high up decides that it’s not necessary. It may have started as a prudent measure, but now that it’s obviously pointless, enforcing the rule is more about demonstrating authority than ensuring safety.

  3. July 21, 2011 at 10:43 am | #3

    The big practical issue here is something called unintentional radiation. Digital devices tend to generate wideband noise that can interfere with the systems used in aviation. Most of these devices are shielded due to the laws of the various countries they are made it. Some are not and it would be impractical to check the approvals of each electronic device carried on a flight.

    Aviation systems were mostly all designed a long time ago and they are not very robust. Yay for standards. There was a study released recently that claimed 75 instances of interference. Here is a relatively coherent comment on the study: http://www.phonearena.com/news/Turning-on-your-smartphone-while-flying-could-have-deadly-consequences_id19502 . I was not able to find the study itself.

    When you you are a passenger on a plane this all gets a lot simpler. You turn off your electronics because.it is the law. If a member of the flight crew instructs you to turn off an electronic device and you fail to do so, they then have the right to leave/put you on the ground and/or press charges. Passengers that can not follow simple instructions are a hazard to everyone on the flight. An aircraft in flight is not a debating society. The flight crew is there to insure your safety. Distracting them with pointless argument is a bad idea. If you want to have a discussion then wait until the flight is over.

  4. July 21, 2011 at 10:46 am | #6

    The full attention excuse seems like hogwash — Air Canada allows you to watch the in-flight entertainment system from the moment you sit down til the moment you get off the plane (though they do automatically cut into it when doing passenger announcements.) What I don’t understand is why you can only use “earbud-style” headphones if you keep watching from descent through disembarkation. How are earbuds any less dangerous or distracting than over-the-ear headphones?

    And since I was sitting near you on that flight, I can vouch the large hardcover book our mutual friend was reading would have been a much more deadly projectile than your iPad :)

  5. July 21, 2011 at 10:56 am | #7

    BTW I think you might be misremembering the thing about cellphones at extreme height. I remember the complaint as a problem with capacity reduction. A cell phone at 30000 feet can be received anywhere in a circle 800 km in diameter. That means that pretty much every compatible cell tower in Southern Ontario might have to deal with the just the one phone. Imagine what an entire plane full of active cell phones would do to the system.

    • July 21, 2011 at 11:06 am | #8

      Isn’t that what I said?

      • July 21, 2011 at 5:14 pm | #9

        It is just that I had never heard the roaming system collapse theory before. The motion of the plane would not seem all that extreme from the prospective of the cell towers. Who knows, perhaps someone has done the simulation…

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