Daily Dispatches

Support for in-air electronics taking off


Travelers may be able to keep their e-readers, laptops, or smartphones on during takeoff and landing as early as 2014 if the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) implements recommendations from a new study.

The industry-government study suggested technology has advanced in both aviation and consumer electronics, making electromagnetic interference (EMI) minimal or non-existent for many newer model aircraft. The study group provided the FAA with new procedures to help airlines verify an aircraft’s shielding or resistance to interference.

The FAA, airlines, and industry experts have long shared uncertainties about the radio signals electronic devices give off, which can cause interference. For each carrier, the FAA oversees tests to determine whether particular electronic devices compromise a plane’s electronic systems.

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In 2011, Amazon conducted its own study with a “plane packed full of Kindles” and found no evidence of EMI, company spokesman Drew Herdener said.

But all electronic devices emit some radio energy because of switching circuitry. For instance, e-readers emit a low-level signal when turning a page. Even such weak signals can theoretically affect flight safety if the same frequency is used by the plane’s navigation or communications equipment. Pilots have suspected EMI as the cause of buzzing in their headsets.

Cell phones, which are “intentional transmitters,” still could pose a risk in-flight. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) governs phones, not the FAA, and bans cell phone use in the air to prevent disruptions to ground antennas from fast-moving, airborne phones.

In a widely reported letter to the FAA, Delta Airlines said that out of 2.3 million flights over two years, it received 27 reports from pilots and maintenance crews of possible device interference, but none of the reports were verifiable.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing maintains electronic devices can cause “anomalous events during flight.” In a bevy of tests, it found EMI from the devices hard to reproduce for verifying which conditions cause risks. Boeing also studied 16 models of cellphones and showed their emitted radio waves interfered with aircraft navigation and communication. One in-flight danger: a plane veering off its magnetic course.

In July, the British Civil Aviation Authority ruled that personal cell phones may be used immediately upon landing. But an in-flight ban is still enforced unless the plane has picocell technology, which is an on-board mini cell tower for routing internet and voice calls to satellites rather than ground towers. Virgin Atlantic and Dubai’s Emirates Airlines already give passengers this option on certain aircraft.

Still, many passengers do not believe cell phones are a risk: A survey of 7,600 self-reporting travelers conducted by South African travel agency Travelstart.co.za, found an average of 15 phones left on during international flights and about five left on during domestic flights.

The Associate Press contributed to this report.

Rob Holmes
Rob Holmes

Rob is a translator and linguist in northern Africa. His five children love it when he reads to them and does “the voices,” especially in Hank the Cowdog. Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.


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