Pre-December Special! Readers Speak on Airline Security

Here's the set-up. One the one hand, I have two or three weeks ahead of fairly high-pressure real "non-web" writing, for a magazine article and edits to a book. (Following a recent stretch of fairly high-pressure aviating, which I will eventually write about.)

On the other: I have a wonderful bonanza of reader mail on themes like: whether reading your Kindle can make a plane crash; whether "Mitt" is Candidate Romney's "real first name"; whether the Mormon faith of Candidates Romney and Huntsman will make any difference in their electoral prospects; the militarization of the police; the consequences of online hacking; how bad the air pollution is in China, and its risks of economic slowdown, and so on. Plus, beer.

Here's the solution. For the next while, I plan to dole out messages on themes like those above, reserving my "here's what it all means!" dispositive judgments for later on. The unexpected payoff of the Atlantic's online audience, nearly 18 years after we first launched our "Atlantic Unbound" feature, is what you learn from a self-organizing army of experts, with the occasional crank.

To kick this off with experts-only, a few established voices on how to think about the risk (or lack thereof) of electronic devices in planes.

Aircraft engineer: there's no risk. From an employee of the most famous company that makes major airliners. (He asked not to name the company, but you're free to guess):

Interestingly, I had a conversation about this matter a few weeks ago with a co-worker who is an engineer. I was in Europe, and we were discussing the differences between US and European airlines on what was allowed and what wasn't (e.g. Europe: no cell phones, even on the ground, but bluetooth away. US: no bluetooth ever, but cell phones as soon as the wheels hit the runway). His comment:

"the real truth to all this the amount of shielding used on modern commercial jets pretty much guarantees that there is no real interference by any of these devices."

Flight attendant: you're making our life worse. To the opposite effect, from a former flight attendant of a major airline that was originally part of the company mentioned above. You can figure this out if you try.

As former flight attendant and the partner of a flight attendant I am completely surprised [by my argument].  As a pilot you should understand the interdependence of aviation safety, that safety in one area of flight affects all others.  So why did you have to make my girlfriend's job even more difficult, and potentially more dangerous?  Every day flight attendants ask passengers to turn off their electronic distractions for just a few minutes, and its for exactly the reason you stated:

"If anything went wrong on a crowded airline flight, the flight crew would need everyone's full attention, now. The prevailing theory is that passengers are less likely to be distracted if they're not cocooned by their acoustic headsets or distracted by their iPads."

Getting people to disconnect for just a few minutes (for their safety and the safety of others) is already a major chore.  You are already allowed to have you cell phone on after you leave the runway and move to taxiway, which in and of itself is pretty amazing because of the greater risk of collision there.  With the ever increasing prevalence of electronic distractions being brought aboard, the potential effect during an evacuation is getting worse.

Even better that you should post this right before the holidays when families with young ones are more often traveling.  Have you ever tried to pull an 13 year old boy away from a video game?  Even if a naked woman should walk by I doubt he would notice, let alone the aircraft needing to be evacuated.  It is not just kids though.  In every evacuation crew members have reported passengers often attempting to take their belongings with them, further endangering everyone.  I can just see someone fumbling with their bag (worried that junior gets his gifts this christmas), bose earmuffs installed and going the wrong way during an evacuation.  Even more worrying is that even though you may fly in "38F" very often the demographic that reads The Atlantic sits in "1A."  It is in first class that flight attendants encounter more attitude over safety then any other place on the plane.  I know we needed another jerk thinking, "well I paid extra so I can do whatever I want, and if James Fallows thinks its silly then I do too."

I realize that you said you would be following the rule, but your article promotes a cavalier attitude toward this matter, undermining the authority of the crew, who only wants to get home safely.  [JF: In fact, I think they would have more authority if they didn't have to enforce nonsensical rules.] Even if one could careless for yours and other's safety, following crew member instructions is the law. 

Tech-aviation veteran: It's a matter of anomalous bad design. This note comes from Curtis Sanford, a tech-world official and president of COPA, the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, of which I am a charter member. It was a Cirrus SR22 in which I was flying, at some points with an 80-knot tailwind that led to groundspeeds of nearly 300 miles per hour, from South Carolina to Maryland today.

I guess I'm going to have to chip in with COPA's contribution. You may not recall, but in our forums there were multiple reproducible reports of cellphones completely knocking a GPS offline. The specifics I believe were all Sprint PCS phones, and in fact I believe a single Korean brand of phone.

I believe what was happening there was a combination of a badly designed phone being used in a location in the plane that was close to a comms antenna cable (the GPS2 antenna cable in those planes ran right by the passenger's right pocket). The potential for poorly designed equipment raises the possibility of any equipment, even without transmit capability generating GPS interference.

That leads to the infamous case of the Moss Landing GPS interference. Back in around 2000 something started jamming GPS signals in Moss Harbor, California, to the point that ships could not come into the harbor in the fog due to signal integrity loss. A research team based there conducted an extensive search for the cause, eventually find it to be a cheap Taiwanese RF [radio frequency] remodulator for a TV set. (story here.)This shows that any RF-utilizing equipment, which would certainly include all gadget electronics, has the potential to be misdesigned to emit GPS-jamming signals.

So for me that is a good enough reason to be willing to carry on my paper copy of the Atlantic (I SUBSCRIBE!) for reading during takeoff and landing.

AM radio receivers can't hurt. And from a reader who challenges the claim's by yesterday's pilot-engineer:

I would like to point out the implausibility of your pilot reader's assertion that an AM radio interfered with his instruments. As I'm sure we all know, an AM radio only receives incoming signals and them minimally amplifies sound for the earphones. Unlike cellular phones, It does no transmitting whatsoever. There are a multitude of airports all over the word where aircraft routinely pass through radio signals and electromagnetic fields that are orders of magnitude more powerful than a portable AM radio in the passenger seat with no ill effects. [JF: And, again, aircraft must be certified to withstand a bolt of lightning and still function.] There may be a reasonable case to be made against transmitters in the passenger compartment that, especially in aggregate, may cause enough interference, but anyone claiming a receiver is responsible for diverting a flight is frankly not thinking very critically about the issue.

This is an anecdotal argument from an expert-sounding source who does not possess the necessary understanding of the principals involved to give an informed opinion.

Much more to come from the mailbag. Thanks to all. And, yes, I had my T-Mobile cellphone, and my Foreflight-equipped iPad, turned on throughout my Cirrus flight today. The only navigation problem I had was the predictable one that happens when passing over the huge concentrations of antennas in Annapolis and around the Patuxent Naval Air station, which at least in my airplane sometimes lead to momentary "navigation source lost" alerts.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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