Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 29, 2011

Please turn off all electronic devices

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christopher Bellavita on November 29, 2011

“That means anything with an on-off switch has to be turned to the off position,” the flight attendent said in that awkward linguistic style that calls crashing into the ocean a water landing.

“It must be turned off,” the attendent repeated as if the passengers had ignored the first order. “Completely off; not placed in Airplane Mode.”

I can’t remember how many years I’ve heard this refrain. I always assumed it had something to do with electronic devices emiting signals that could interfere with the plane’s navigation system. I think I recall hearing a flight attendent say that several years ago. Ok, maybe 30 years ago.

I know practically nothing about electronics or navigation systems.  I trust the experts.

The last decade has seen the growth of items in the flight attendent announcement of what counts as an electronic device: cell phones, computers, iPads, Kindles, handheld video games, noise cancelling ear phones.

If you’ve flown much you know the drill. You use your cell phone until the door closes. All electronic equipment remains off until you reach 10,000 feet.  You hear a few beeps, followed by an announcement about turning on “approved electronic devices.”

I’ve often wondered how many people actually turn their devices off.  Sometimes I forget to turn mine off.

I saw an article on this topic in Tuesday’s New York Times by Nick Bilton called “Fliers Must Turn Off Devices, but It’s Not Clear Why.”

Some excerpts:

Millions of Americans who got on a plane over the Thanksgiving holiday heard the admonition: “Please power down your electronic devices for takeoff.” And absolutely everyone obeyed. I know they did because no planes fell from the sky. No planes had to make an emergency landing because the avionics went haywire. No planes headed for Miami ended up in Anchorage. We were all made safe because we all turned off all our Kindles, iPads, iPhones, BlackBerrys and laptops, just as the Federal Aviation Administration told us to. ….

OK, that was sarcasm.

According to the F.A.A., 712 million passengers flew within the United States in 2010. Let’s assume that just 1 percent of those passengers — about two people per Boeing 737, a conservative number — left a cellphone, e-reader or laptop turned on during takeoff or landing. That would mean seven million people on 11 million flights endangered the lives of their fellow passengers.

Yet, in 2010, no crashes were attributed to people using technology on a plane. None were in 2009. Or 2008, 2007 and so on. You get the point.

Bilton writes

… rules that are decades old persist without evidence to support the idea that someone reading an e-book or playing a video game during takeoff or landing is jeopardizing safety.

Bilton reports on a 2006 study that found “insufficient evidence to change the policy,” meaning the gadgets are presumed to be potentially dangerous unless they can be proven to be safe.  It’s erring on the side of safety.

…I’m not arguing that passengers should be allowed to make phone calls while the plane zooms up into the sky. But, why can’t I read my Kindle or iPad during takeoff and landing? E-readers and cellphones can be easily put into “Airplane Mode” which disables the device’s radio signals.

One part of the article in particular drew my attention.  Having everyone turn off their devices might actually create a greater hazard.

The government might be causing more unnecessary interference on planes by asking people to shut their devices down for take-off and landing and then giving them permission to restart all at the same time. According to electrical engineers, when the electronic device starts, electric current passes through every part of the gadget, including GPS, Wi-Fi, cellular radio and microprocessor.

It’s the equivalent of waking someone up with a dozen people yelling into bullhorns.

Bilton’s conclusion is

As more and more people transition from paper products to digital ones, maybe it’s time to change these rules.

The article received almost 200 comments. So many comments that Bilton wrote a second article — titled “It’s called ‘Airplane mode’ for a reason” — to respond to the comments. That article is available here: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/28/its-called-airplane-mode-for-a-reason/

The consensus of the comments, like many issues in homeland security, is polarized. Some people believe the risk is overblown. Other people believe the risk, while small, is potentially serious. One person says he’s flown on Air Force One several times and no one every turned off their phone. Another person, a pilot, said his GPS navigation went blank once because someone in the plane was using a cell phone.

Bilton writes:

Surely if electronic gadgets could bring down an airplane, you can be sure that the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, which has a consuming fear of 3.5 ounces of hand lotion and gel shoe inserts, wouldn’t allow passengers to board a plane with an iPad or Kindle, for fear that they would be used by terrorists.

 

 

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11 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 29, 2011 @ 2:10 am

No major USA airline has made a profit over its lifetime. So I would argue that given the level of subsidy from the taxpayer this kind of bureaucratic response is just an indication of how willing the corporate socialists are willing to respond to any reasonable inquiry.

Oddly is there screening for accidental “on” for cargo planes?

Comment by Mark Chubb

November 29, 2011 @ 10:35 am

For another perspective, see also James Fallows of The Atlantic: ‘All Electronic Devices Must Now Be Powered Off’—But Why?.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

November 29, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

Here’s an amusing take by The Economist about “In-flight announcements are not entirely truthful. What might an honest one sound like?”

http://www.economist.com/node/7884654

Here is their take on electronics:

“Please switch off all mobile phones, since they can interfere with the aircraft’s navigation systems. At least, that’s what you’ve always been told. The real reason to switch them off is because they interfere with mobile networks on the ground, but somehow that doesn’t sound quite so good. On most flights a few mobile phones are left on by mistake, so if they were really dangerous we would not allow them on board at all, if you think about it. We will have to come clean about this next year, when we introduce in-flight calling across the Veritas fleet. At that point the prospect of taking a cut of the sky-high calling charges will miraculously cause our safety concerns about mobile phones to evaporate.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 29, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

Sucked dry by its high priced Executives AA again bankrupt. Let US stop the charade. Either open American skies to all international airlines or just nationalize this fake private industry that just costs US all without much in the way of a long term.

Comment by What nonsense!

November 30, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

What nonsense these days – certainly the planes are not crashing w/all the electronics onboard, however along with the airline industry so heavily subsidized, it is so disheartening to see this continued charade and seeing the Dow soaring while the bankers and bureaucrats hammer in the last few nails to assure we are not too far now from a global collapse…watch the French banks…despite all you hear, watch for they’ll be next….and then on and on as once again the lust for moey and power will bring us to another World War and calamity, this time though, as never imagined….

God Bless our skies and so many good people who are simply trying to live Life with some quality and entrust their children with values quite contrary to the board members and executives of these airlines and banks and those decision-makers duping the people who work so diligently every day….

What a sham! The Act is all most up though, keep reading your Biblical verse as America is Judeo-Christian in value among most of its populace and it is becoming quite clear that our beloved Republic and the European bureaucrats have shown themselves for who they truly are…Lucifer himself.

God Bless us all!

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645
chris.tingus@gmail.com

Comment by Nick Catrantzos

December 2, 2011 @ 10:14 am

Good one, Chris. Some additional data points:

- Were it not for “unauthorized” use of mobile phones ten years ago, the passengers of United Flight 93 may never have obtained some real-time input from loved ones to realize that their hijacked flight was about to be turned into a missile. They might have thus followed accepted, pre-9/11 wisdom to avoid engaging hijackers because these situations were usually resolved by negotiation or SWAT teams on the ground. At least some in-flight calls informed passengers of what was in store for them, making it much more acceptable for them to rush the cockpit, frustrate the terrorists, and go down fighting.

- Even the most vapid scripts do change over time. When was the last time airline employees asked us if we packed our own bags, had anyone ask us to take something for them, and kept our luggage under our control at all times? These things seem to phase out very quietly.

- The airline practices enacted in the name is security have a way of infecting other places of business. Right after 9/11, when visiting clients in their Manhattan and New Jersey high-rises, I recall going through similar screening at elevator lobbies. Guards asked me to show laptop, pager, and cell phone, turning them on and off. “Why?”, I asked. “It’s for your protection, sir,” was the standard reply. Yet when I thanked the guards, complied, and asked how they could tell a bad device from a harmless one (suspecting they had no expertise in identifying plastic explosives or in rendering them safe), I could never elicit more than a repetition of “It’s for your protection.”

We seem to experience many manifestations of security theatre and, perhaps, even more unreasoned mandates dressed up in a security suit to keep them from being naked and embarrassing.

Now pay attention to the kind flight attendant who really must show you how to buckle a seat belt, lest you have just emerged from a cave, newly thawed from an ice age where no mortal ever saw such contraptions before, much less figured out how to work them without painstaking instruction.

Nick Catrantzos

Comment by Nick Catrantzos

December 2, 2011 @ 10:17 am

Good one, Chris. Some additional data points:

- Were it not for “unauthorized” use of mobile phones ten years ago, the passengers of United Flight 93 may never have obtained some real-time input from loved ones to realize that their hijacked flight was about to be turned into a missile. They might have thus followed accepted, pre-9/11 wisdom to avoid engaging hijackers because these situations were usually resolved by negotiation or SWAT teams on the ground. At least some in-flight calls informed passengers of what was in store for them, making it much more acceptable for them to rush the cockpit, frustrate the terrorists, and go down fighting.

- Even the most vapid scripts do change over time. When was the last time airline employees asked us if we packed our own bags, had anyone ask us to take something for them, and kept our luggage under our control at all times? These things seem to phase out very quietly.

- The airline practices enacted in the name of security have a way of infecting other places of business. Right after 9/11, when visiting clients in their Manhattan and New Jersey high-rises, I recall going through similar screening at elevator lobbies. Guards asked me to show laptop, pager, and cell phone, turning them on and off. “Why?”, I asked. “It’s for your protection, sir,” was the standard reply. Yet when I thanked the guards, complied, and asked how they could tell a bad device from a harmless one (suspecting they had no expertise in identifying plastic explosives or in rendering them safe), I could never elicit more than a repetition of “It’s for your protection.”

We seem to experience many manifestations of security theatre and, perhaps, even more unreasoned mandates dressed up in a security suit to keep them from being naked and embarrassing.

Now pay attention to the kind flight attendant who really must show you how to buckle a seat belt, lest you have just emerged from a cave, newly thawed from an ice age where no mortal ever saw such contraptions before, much less figured out how to work them without painstaking instruction.

Nick Catrantzos

Comment by Kirk Skinner

December 7, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

Insightful… I did find a spelling error though: “One person says he’s flown on Air Force One several times and no one every turned off their phone.”

Definitely a “3″…

Comment by Ken Rueben

December 7, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

Great article…..

I give it a “4″

Comment by Michael Falkow

December 8, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

Very little original content and spelling errors. At best this is a three.

Comment by Anfim

May 17, 2013 @ 7:09 am

whoah this weblog is magnificent i like studying your articles. Stay up the great paintings!

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