Let's Talk Kindles-on-Takeoff One More Time

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baldwin-460x307.jpgIn honor of the FAA's decision to allow American Airlines pilots to use iPads for their flight charts, versus the voluminous paper charts that fill those square briefcases you see pilots lugging around airports;

   - and in belated recognition of the Alec Baldwin-vs-AA affair (with anti-Baldwin followup by an AA pilot and by Patrick Smith of Ask the Pilot);

   - and in recognition of Joe Sharkey's reminder of how (relatively) appealing train travel has become, when measured against the airlines, plus TN Coates on the same theme;

   - and just for the hell of it...

... here is some of the correspondence about my earlier claims (#1, #2, #3, #4) that airlines and the FAA were engaged in a form of "safety theater," with their insistence that "everything with an On-Off switch must be in the OFF position" on taxi, takeoff, descent, and landing. As mentioned earlier, 1000+ dispatches came in. This is an initial survey of main themes.

  It's all about projectile danger. This is one of Patrick Smith's big points. Also from a reader:

...On why you can't use electronic equipment during takeoff and landing:  One reason that I don't think was mentioned, and I would posit as a true safety concern, is the risk that the device could turn into a projectile during a sudden flight movement (e.g., rough turbulence or a hard landing).  This is why all items (not just electronics) that pose such a risk are to be stowed during takeoff and landing. 

In fact, the applicable FAA Advisory Circular (91.21-1B) states that airline procedures must include: "Prohibiting the operation of any [personal electronic devices] during the takeoff and landing phases of flight. It must be recognized that the potential for personal injury to passengers is a paramount consideration..."

One response might be that books and magazines are permitted during such times, but I would much prefer to get hit in the head by my neighbor's Atlantic Monthly than her iPhone.  In fact, on one particularly hard landing in Saskatoon many years ago, I was hit from across the aisle by one passenger's book that sprang out of his hands.  Thank goodness it wasn't an iPad.

As to why the item has to be turned off, I would imagine that one of the easier ways to ensure that these highly-addictive items are actually stowed is to have them powered down.  That technique definitely helps with kids!

Yes, projectiles:

Another justification that wasn't mentioned, often cited by Salon's Patrick Smith: the blanket on/off rule gets phones, computers, game devices, iPads, etc. out of people's hands and stowed away during take-off and landing, the most dangerous segments of the flight when even small electronics could become dangerous projectiles or trip up passengers fleeing for the exits during an emergency.

It's about attentiveness (plus projectile danger):

I always understood the ban as having more to do with the passenger being attentive, aware of his surroundings and ready to listen to instructions in case of an emergency rather than having anything to do with electrical interference.

On that basis I can see the merit in not allowing noise cancelling headphones, as they inhibit the passenger's receipt of instructions from the flight crew. I can also see the merit in not allowing cameras. In case of an emergency a passenger with his camera glued to the window, attempting to capture the dramatic moments,is not going to be paying attention to the crew and may even be a hindrance to the swift evacuation of the plane.

There is also a danger of equipment flying through the cabin and injuring other passengers during an emergency, which might explain why it is OK to bury your head in a paperback but not a kindle during takeoff.

Yes, attentiveness during emergencies:

My theory is that it has less to do with causing an incident and more to do with survival in case of an incident. If it's true that proximity to an exit increases the rate of survival, and if it's true that takeoff and landing are the most dangerous parts of a flight, then I think it's best for flight crew to have my full attention during those moments so that I can get out quickly despite the pandemonium.

So my equation is this: potential interference to ILS and air-ground radio + passengers distracted by devices + devices propelled across the cabin at high velocity = bad outcome if something goes wrong. What do you think?

But wait a minute... :

As to the suggestion that reason for turning off devices during take-off/landing has to do with being ready to pay attention in the event of an emergency, the one time passengers are asked explicitly to pay attention, when a flight attendant recites, or a video plays, instructions on how to buckle a seat belt, find an exit door and slip on a life jacket, is the time when people seem to find plenty of non electronic ways to pay no attention.

Attendants don't insist on attention from hard copy print readers, crossword and Suduko puzzlers, quietly chatting companions, parents fussing with children, travelers starting in on the food purchased in the terminal, or those who boringly stare out the window because they know the seat belt speech as well as a first grader knows the Pledge of Allegiance.

Similarly:

The flight attendants don't seem to mind if I sleep, read or watch directTV during the safety demonstration and how could the hardened navigation systems but susceptible to my iPhone?

Further I think it safe to say that on 99.9% of flights someone has left something on, on purpose or by accident. What percentage of laptops in the overhead bins or down below in suitcases are fully powered off? So my argument is that we're already breaking the rule so let's just get rid of it. It is far past time. Also those pigs have GOT to pay for stealing my eggs...

Why the blanket "Anything with an On-Off switch" rule, even for obviously benign devices? Because otherwise flight attendants would go crazy:

This one is pragmatic. It's just easier for the flight attendant that way. They don't have to figure out what kind of device it is or answer questions about "can I use this?" One rule for them all.

Similarly:

I've always assumed it's so flight attendants don't have to make individual decisions about every device.

Can you imagine if they had to look at every device and listen to every passenger whine about why their particular devices can stay on? We'd never take off!

And, less forgivingly:

What's so maddening about the Kindle specifically is that it doesn't especially HAVE an on/off switch. e-ink is much more akin to a printed page than to the LCD screen on something like an iPad. The device draws no current except when it is changing the display, which it does each time you click the next/previous page.

The Kindle does have an "off" switch, but it only puts the device in screen saver mode where random images of famous writers (or adverts, depending on the model) are periodically. This is functionally identical to what I would be doing if I were using the device with the wireless functions turned off. When a flight attendant tells me to turn it "off' and put it away, it keeps doing the allegedly dangerous thing, but nobody minds because I'm not looking at it.

The TechCrunch writer John Biggs listed this as reason number 7 not to buy a Kindle. He said explaining this to flight attendants would be "like explaining heaven to bears," and he was exactly correct. [Biggs's actual quote: "Flight attendants will tell you to turn it off on take off and landing. You can't explain that it's epaper and uses no current. You just can't. It's like explaining heaven to bears."]

After the jump, two more for now: one saying that the rules are prudent, and another saying that they're a charade.

The better safe than sorry principle:

My understanding, as someone who has worked with both the FAA at DOT, and [at another federal agency] (at the political level - I am not an engineer), is that the problem is one of potential aggregate effects.
 
In other words, the odds may be relatively slim that any single transmitting device would be dangerous to the flight instrumentation on an aircraft, but that is different from the potential aggregate effect of a large percentage of passengers using those devices.
 
And you are correct, of course, that pilots themselves use devices that would be banned for passengers to use - but that is kind of the point.  The pilots need to - the passengers don't.  One or two passengers breaking the rule probably doesn't make any difference, but a carte blanche for all the passengers - might.
 
So, it is more of a risk mitigation question.
 
The other thing is the old maxim that, at this point, aviation accidents almost never result from one failure - they result from multiple failures interacting with each other.  And, in this case, what's going on aboard the aircraft is also interacting with what's happening on the ground, over which the pilot and flight crew have no control.
 
I was told about a case where some of the flight instrumentation (including the altimeters) on approaching aircraft at the airport in Little Rock seemed to be randomly going on the fritz.  It only happened on Fridays and Saturdays - but not every Friday and Saturday.  The FAA and FCC folks were tearing their hair out about it.
 
It turned out that a high school along one of the approaches to the airport had purchased a new electronic scoreboard that was improperly shielded.  The interference turned out to correlate perfectly with their basketball team's home game and away game schedule.  (I was not involved in that case, by the way - it predated my tenure at either Transportation or Commerce.  I'm passing along the information I was given.)
 
To summarize, it seems to boil down to an ethic to control everything you can in order to give yourself a margin of error you might need for handling things you can't control.
 
Like I said, however, I am a lawyer and public policy wonk - not an engineer.
 
But that's why I always turn off my cell phone - just in case somebody else doesn't.

And, finally for this installment, the terrorist angle:

You can also attack this problem from the other side: if a legitimate issue was involved, terrorists would have adopted it long ago.  Bags full of electronic devices left in the "on" position would have been checked or carried on-board while inspectors were looking for bombs and such.  Chaos would have ensued. 

We can be reasonably assured this has not happened because the airlines and airline safety authorities would have publicized it enthusiastically.

 Clear now? Future installments will include guides on favorite Amtrak routes, plus nearby "Learn to Fly" schools.

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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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