Do E-Readers Really Present a Threat to Airplanes?

The increasingly heated national debate surrounding the use of personal electronic devices on airplanes has been chugging along steadily for years now. And yet thanks to the laudable efforts of the New York Times‘ Nick Bilton, the conversation has once again become news.

As many of you are undoubtedly aware, a now-legendary Bilton piece appearing in the Times in late March—in which he criticized the F.A.A.’s  rules against using e-readers and tablets during taxi, takeoff or landing—actually resulted in a somewhat positive governmental response: The F.A.A. promised to take “a fresh look” at the issue.

Frequent fliers everywhere, of course, have long been equally befuddled and frustrated by the confusion surrounding the PEDs-on-planes regulation: Most of us, I’d like to believe, would be only too happy to stow our Kindles and iPads during the required periods … if only we knew without a doubt that such devices could indeed cause interference with an aircraft’s electronic transmissions. But we don’t know that.

In fact, in an Aero magazine article published in March 2000, Boeing admits that after undertaking several investigations, it “has not been able to find a definite correlation between  [personal electronic devices] and the associated reported airplane anomalies.”

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Here’s another reason this issue is so endlessly frustrating: The vast majority of passengers who discuss it, or journalists who write about it, seem to approach the issue with their minds already made up. And yet because the F.A.A. itself doesn’t seem too terribly clear on the hows, whys and wherefores of its own regulations, it’s understandably difficult for those of us who are paying customers of the airlines to take the inconvenience laying down.

I found Kate Bevan’s recent piece in the Guardian to be especially even-measured. (My earlier reference to the Aero magazine article, by the way, came directly from her write-up.) Because she so smartly points out the logic behind both sides of the argument, I’d consider it a must-read for anyone who might be even slightly interested in the topic.

Meanwhile, Nick Bilton and scores of other journalists, bloggers and consumers are continuing to press the issue. I think it’s a fair guess to suspect that it was the ceaseless barrage of noise coming from both the media and the airlines’ consumers that eventually forced the F.A.A. into announcing its upcoming investigation.

Just five days ago, for those of you who may not be aware, the F.A.A. distributed a press release announcing plans for an “industry working group to study [the effects of] portable electronics usage” on aircraft. This almost certainly would not have happened if no one had discussed the current regulations–or debated them–in the first place.

And here’s where you come in. According to the aforementioned press release:

“As the first step in gathering information for the working group, the FAA is seeking public input on the agency’s current [personal electronic device] policies, guidance and procedures for operators. The Request for Comments, which will appear in the Federal Register on August 28th, is part of a data-driven agency initiative to review the methods and criteria operators use to permit PEDs during flights … Comments can be filed up to 60 days after the Federal Register publish date.”

To view or download the actual 14-page Request for Comments document, click here. (PDF)

So if this is a situation you would personally like to see resolved at some point in your lifetime, please: Write about it, blog about it, mention it on your favorite social networking sites, discuss it in online forums, discuss it with fellow passengers and airline employees during your next flight–whatever it takes.

6 Comments on Do E-Readers Really Present a Threat to Airplanes?

  1. It was a good article, but it still confuses me. Are they really saying that I will not be paying attention to the flight crew if the plane is crashing? Wow, that would be a great book to keep my attention when everyone is freaking out and the plane is rushing for the ground.

    Although this is the same group of people who feel we need to be told how to close and open a seat belt.

    I live in hope that I can read during take off and landing.

  2. Wilson: No, they’re suggesting that if passengers are allowed to use e-readers and tablets prior to takeoff, those passengers probably won’t pay attention to the pre-flight safety instructions given by the crew.

    That’s a ridiculously weak argument, of course, for a number of reasons: First of all, very few passengers today pay attention to the crew’s safety instructions, and the FAA knows that.

    And second, passengers are currently allowed to read print books and magazines and newspapers during the pre-takeoff and taxi period. Why on earth does the FAA assume that passengers looking at words on paper will be any less engrossed in their reading than those who are looking at words on a device?!

    What’s more, passengers are also allowed to do nearly anything during pre-takeoff that doesn’t involve personal electronic devices: Talking with a seatmate, writing in a journal, feeding a Ziploc bag’s worth of Cheerios to a howling infant, and so on.

    So for this particular argument to have any validity whatsoever, ever single type of human activity would have to disallowed during the pre-takeoff period, with the exception of paying attention to the crew as they point out the plane’s emergency exits. It’s just a ridiculously inane argument, period.

    At any rate, if e-reading during takeoff and landing really is important to you, I hope you’ll download the PDF document linked to in the article, and submit your comments to the FAA!

  3. What I really worry about during take-off and landing in an airplane is anything that is connected to something else by a cable or wire.

    If the plane crashes, you could get tangled up in power cords, mouse cords, headphone cords, etc., delaying your progress to the emergency exits.

    So, ban wire and cable based connectivity during takeoff and landing. Unplug the USB mouse, and use the little touchpad on your laptop. Unplug and stow the power cables. And so on.

    Otherwise, I don’t think that an ebook or a tablet is a threat. Of course this must be confirmed by a proper study, and I welcome such a study.

  4. I really don’t see what the big fuss is.

    Yes, maybe they don’t know for sure that personal devices cause some of the anomalies and it may be something completely unrelated. But, for the sake of not reading for 5 or 10 minutes during take off on your one hour plus flight is it really worth risking?

  5. 15 years ago I took a job that involved weekly travel. Of course I quickly became blasé about the safety warnings, etc and continued to read during the pre-flight demo, ignoring the flight attendants. However, it quickly dawned on me how impolite that was. Since then, I have always put down whatever I was reading, be it a book or electronic device and will pay attention to the flight attendant. Passenger safety is an important part of their job and I like to think that by paying attention to them, it is making their job a bit easier.

  6. Dan: ” First of all, very few passengers today pay attention to the crew’s safety instructions, and the FAA knows that.”

    Although if the FAA had their way, you’d be required to visibly pay attention and verbally confirm that you received and understood the instructions (and the flight crew wouldn’t push back from the gate until this was the case for every passenger.)

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