Do Electronic Gadgets Really Affect an Airplane's Instruments?

Posted Mar 25th 2011 12:00 PMUpdated Mar 25th 2011 12:43 PM


electronic gadgets airplane

David Parker Brown

Shortly after boarding, flight attendants are required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to tell passengers to turn off all electronic devices including cell phones and laptop computers. But is it really necessary and what really happens if you don't?

The official reason for the requirement that electronic devices need to be turned off is to make sure passengers listen to the safety instructions from the flight attendants, reduce the presence of loose objects getting in the way in case of an emergency and to eliminate the possibility of the devices interfering with the airline's avionics.

It is not just about putting away your electronic devices, but actually shutting them completely down. Recently, there have been highly publicized cases of passengers getting caught ignoring the rules -- actor Josh Duhamel was kicked off a flight, for instance, for continuing to use his Blackberry when ordered not to.

Electronic devices must be kept off under 10,000 feet since take off and landing are two of the most critical parts of a flight, experts say. It's considered a matter of safety.

At lower altitudes there is less room to recover if something goes wrong, so, "aircraft navigation and course corrections are required to be more precise," Dave Carson, Boeing Cabin Systems Engineer told AOL Travel News.

The FAA's website indicates the agency is not fully sure how electronic waves might interfere with airline avionics, but they want to make sure passengers remain safe. According to the site, "there are still unknowns about the radio signals that portable electronic devices and cell phones give off."

Of course many airlines allow passengers to use cell phones once flights are on the ground. A few years ago American Airlines, for one, tested how cell phones would affect their planes electronics, and decided it was fine to allow passengers to turn on their cell phones after landing and while taxiing to the gate.

And in some places around the world, passengers can use their cell phone during flight. Singapore Airlines this year plans to introduce the option to passengers of staying connected at 35,000 feet; and Emirates Airlines, based in Dubai, has allowed cell usage since March 2008.

Will we see cell phones on American and other U.S. carriers? Not likely. "We are not seeking a way to use cell phones in flight. Our customers have made it clear they do not want phone conversations in flight," said American spokesman Tim Smith.

While the FAA is concerned about how cell phones might affect safety, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is more concerned about the infrastructure on the ground. According to the agency's website, the FCC prohibits the use of cell phones aboard aircraft, "because of potential interference to wireless networks on the ground."

U.S. airlines have certainly been moving towards more entertainment technology for passengers, however. And that begs the question, could airlines be motivated to restrict personal electronics to make more money off their own in-flight options?

Addison Schonland, president of airline consulting group, IAG, doesn't think so, but explained that additional revenue is very important for airlines. "Ancillary revenue is everything and whatever can be done to grow that gets attention."

Before airlines add any new technology for passengers – such as Wi-Fi or interactive TV – the FAA has to approve it for flight. Again, the concern is possible interference with electronic navigation.

"Our regulations say that the airline must prove to the FAA that there is no chance for electronic interference," Alison Duquette with the FAA explains.

Virgin America, which flies an all Airbus A320 fleet, has taken a lead in onboard offerings with seat-back inflight entertainment systems (IFE) that even include touch-screen shopping.

When asked if they have ever had any issues with any of their on-board electronics, Virgin America spokeswoman Abby Lundardini said, "All our IFE systems are rigorously tested to be in compliance and there have never been issues with this."

Aircraft manufactures Boeing and Airbus work closely with their airline customers on certification of systems, officials say.

Even in the last week, there were reports that Honeywell cockpit displays were blanking during testing of onboard Wi-Fi systems on Boeing 737s.

"Airplane systems are tested to rigorous electromagnetic standards, and Boeing supports our airline customers in the introduction of new electronics for our aircraft," Carson explained.

When Airbus finds a potential issue with one airline customer, they share that information with other customers, spokesman Clay McConnell said, "We are constantly working with our airline customers to share the best information."

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March 28 2011 at 8:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have a close relative who is a retired Boeing electrical engineer. He designed and installed all of Boeing's systems. There has never been one confirmed incident of any personal electronic device interfering with a plane's communication or control systems, especially a cell phone. Their output is so minuscule as to be irrelevant. The FAA just doesn't want to take even the slightest chance that they will. It is a bogus fear from some desk jockey of years gone by that just keeps perpetuating itself. Look at all the other radio waves in the atmosphere, such as 1000 watt radio stations that could do the same thing, only with much more power. And why would they be a safety hazard here, but not in

Right now the carriers go along with it for the reasons mentioned: financial and personal. Those planes that do have phones built in charge exorbitant prices and only business travelers use them. Personal calls are usually not of an emergency situation and most of us just wait until we get back on terra firma. Perhaps the airlines could reserve the back of the plane for those wanting to carry on phone conversations, much like the old smoking and non-smoking sections. Something for everyone.

March 28 2011 at 1:17 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Logicplus's comment

That's NOT True!! I've been called by the cockpit and asked to go through the cabin to make sure all devices were OFF. Why? Interference was called into question.

Electronic devices come into the Marketplace daily, new, improved, more POWERFUL electronic devices are made. Can you tell me that all these devices have been properly checked for use, for take off and landing, by all the countries who put these devices out?????
The one thing the airlines do well, it's SAFETY. We have 35 thousand daily departures in this country daily. Incidences are rare because we put SAFETY FIRST.

December 08 2011 at 11:10 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to frank96's comment

i work with computers in my free time and have flown enough to call bullshit on you buddy, unless my tablet has some military grade jamming device, nothing is going to happen. oh and as for safety, you should go take a look at the maintenance records for their jets, you'll see why it's a miracle most of them leave and return to the ground "safely".

June 23 2013 at 5:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
p mcgovern

This is really a typical issue about liability(nowhere stated in article.)
If something goes wrong and the airline said "ok" it becomes their liability
If something goes wrong after a passenger uses a cellphone against instructions it is the passenger's liability.
If soething goes wrong and no one says anything it becomes the manufacturer's liability.

lawyer's rule!

March 27 2011 at 1:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

DON'T believe this story!!! Well over 90% is not true. The single and foremost reason the use of cell phones are not allowed during flight is ONLY the fact the airlines currently are not making a profit per minute per call from your cell phone, I on your calls and your calls while on board are not monitored by the Feds. Nothing else, as all cell phones meet current interference guidelines set forth by the FAA.

March 27 2011 at 10:55 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply


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March 27 2011 at 10:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If you need your gadgits with you at all times YOU ARE BRAIN DEAD ANYWAY!

March 27 2011 at 10:13 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Joseph Papierz Jr

If your telephone conversation is so important, maybe you should'nt be on the plane.Go back to your office. You should'nt be away from your workplace, ever.

March 26 2011 at 10:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Joseph Papierz Jr

Most conversations I've overheard on cell phones are nothing more than just passing the time of day. What happened to the idea of paying attention to what you are doing and doing onlly one thing at a time? "Once in a rare while" I overhear someone in the grocery store saying something like "yes I got the ketchup what's next?" Seems like a written list would be handier and less bothersome to other shoppers. It's a shame that phone users don't have more consideration for where they are and the people around them. We really don't want to hear their private conversations. It's especially annoying when someone is on the phone and a check out clerk asks them a question and they act annoyed at being disturbed. Put the damn phone away and pay attention to why you came into the store in the first place. As far as airplanes goes, there is nothing worse than sitting next to a "Chatty Cathy" when all you want to do is sit back and relax until you get to your destination. For most people traveling is necessary to get from one place to another not an opportunity to catch up on telephone calls. Hearing all announcements made by the flight attendents is sort of handy, too. So I'm totally in favor of no phones on airplanes, trains, or busses.

March 26 2011 at 10:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have a problem with noise and use Bose Noise Cancellation headphones when I fly. I have seen them advertised as something that pilots wear in the cockpit. But I am usually asked to turn mine off at the beginning of the flight. Does anyone know if there is any possibility they would interfere with the electronics on the plane and be a danger?

March 26 2011 at 8:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Larry W. Bruce

Please , please, please, do not give the passengers more reasons to disrespect the flight attendants. Many times I have been on flights where passengers won't stop talking during the pre-flight safety instructions, won't fold-up their lap tray when asked, don't put their seat in the upright position or fasten their seat belt when asked to do so by the flight attendants. If the passengers don't want to follow instructions fine but, I certainly don't want any encouragement for them crashing into me or delaying my exit from the plane during an emergency. I actually witnessed a woman falling down the stairs while exiting the plane because she was texting. Too Bad. In my opinion, cellphones and texting should be off untill you are OUT OF THE PLANE AND IN THE TERMINAL. Most people with cell phones are selfish and only think of themselves. Think of the guy behind you that is going to miss his next flight because he's stuck behind some assh*** on a cellphone, chit chatting.

March 26 2011 at 5:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply