Giz Explains: How To Fix the Airlines' Stupid Portable Gadget RulesS

If you've flown lately, you have probably noticed that the "portable electronics" rules are increasingly muddled. It's time for the FAA and airlines to lift the electronics ban completely, or rewrite it to reflect modern gadgets.

The first problem is, nearly all electronics are lumped together, despite differences in their innards and the services they perform. The second problem is this constant generic request to turn them "off." Until airlines can speak coherently about ebooks, smartphones, tablets and other traveler-friendly gadgets—and address the various states of rest between "on" and "off"—the system remains in a sphere of stupidity. Whether this is mildly annoying or potentially deadly remains to be seen.

The last time I flew, I had in my carry-on bag three cameras, three laptops, a smartphone and a classic iPod. Judging from the long security lines, I wasn't the only one trucking plentiful gadgetry.

When I got on the plane, the flight attendant asked everyone to turn "off" phones and other portable electronics. She appeared at my side as I was switching my iPhone to airplane mode and repeated, "It's time to turn off your portable electronics." I replied, "That's what I'm doing." She sneered like a 1930s copper who'd just collared the dumbest guy in the bootlegging operation: "So flipping through screens is how you turn it off? There's no on-off switch on the side?" She thought she'd caught me in a lie. I just looked back in disbelief, made the screen magically go dark, and put my supposedly "off" phone back in my pocket, satisfying whatever interpretation of the rules was in this poor misinformed woman's head.

On another leg of our journey, just before takeoff, a flight attendant pointed to the ebook reader my wife was using and said in a stern voice, "Please turn off all portable electronics." She did not ask the gentleman seated next to us to turn off his digital watch, though it may well have been drawing more power at the time.

Worst of all, she did not check every single cellphone and laptop to make sure they were in a state where they could not emit a hefty dose of RF. Most of the smartphones on board were probably in standby (with some kind of radio emission still happening) and most laptops were probably closed but not powered down—hopefully sleeping.

The only command we're given is to turn stuff "off"—a command increasingly ignored for its incoherence. What does it mean for a phone or iPod to be "off"? Most people don't even know. If the command is this easy to ignore with no consequences, the likely conclusion is that the gear really isn't a threat. But if it is, the airlines may not discover their own boneheadedness until the danger reaches some lethal saturation point.

Here's the actual FAA regulation:

§ 121.306 Portable electronic devices.
(a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, no person may operate, nor may any operator or pilot in command of an aircraft allow the operation of, any portable electronic device on any U.S.-registered civil aircraft operating under this part.
(b) Paragraph (a) of this section does not apply to—
(1) Portable voice recorders;
(2) Hearing aids;
(3) Heart pacemakers;
(4) Electric shavers; or
(5) Any other portable electronic device that the [airline] has determined will not cause interference with the navigation or communication system of the aircraft on which it is to be used.
(c) The determination required by paragraph (b)(5) of this section shall be made by that [airline] operating the particular device to be used.
[Doc. No. FAA–1998–4954, 64 FR 1080, Jan. 7, 1999]

You will have noticed the date, 1999, but still, that preamble speaks volumes: "no person may operate…any portable electronic device on any U.S.-registered civil aircraft…" followed by exception after exception. The mentality of that is old school, to put it politely. You will also note that the discretion is left up to the airline (with heavy support from the aircraft maker), layering on confusion in sugary heaps.

What is the issue? This suggests it is "interference with navigation or communication systems," and in that case, it's understandable that such potential for jamming is minimized during the most dangerous parts of the flight, take off and landing. All electronics give off a bit of radiation; communications devices like phones and laptops give off considerably more. Minimize the amount of RF emissions (including unpredictable radio "harmonics") and you will reduce the chances—however unlikely in the first place—that portable electronics will threaten the safety of the flight.

That was Boeing's recommendation to the feds 10 years ago, when cellphones were starting to boom, and it makes sense. Unfortunately, what's going on now is a mere pantomime true RF security. Here's why:

Smartphones
How many people actually know how to turn off their smartphone? When I carried a BlackBerry, I never turned it off, because it took like 5 minutes to power back on. At the same time, I was always finding it fully awake in my bag or pocket, long after I thought I'd secured it. You CrackBerry addicts are making fun of me right now, and that's fine, but the fact is, I can't possibly be alone. How many people know about airplane mode on iPhones or other phones? For flight attendants, turning off the screen is all that apparently matters, but there's no way that is truly compliant.

Laptops
When was the last time you shut off your laptop during the boarding process? When I run out of the house, I just slam the thing shut and shove it in my bag. When I am at the airport, I pop it open to do some work. So when I'm finally at an altitude where it is safe to use portable electronics, I pop it open and then remember to turn off Wi-Fi. And not so we don't plummet out of the air—more so I can save at least some battery life. My guess is that most people who carry laptops on board just let them sleep, with Wi-Fi engaged. And on certain Vista notebooks I've carried, just closing the lid didn't mean squat.

Handheld Gaming Systems
Back about 14 years ago, there were a spate of reports that Game Boys were causing interference with the operation of planes. According to Boeing, there was never any actual proof of this, though it did inspire one of the funniest Simpsons moments ever. The real joke is, back then, portable gaming systems didn't all come with embedded Wi-Fi and Bluetooth like they do now. My guess is that many a properly stowed Nintendo DS can still sniff around the plane for cute Nintendogs or whatever, even with the lid closed.

Ebook Readers
This one is going to need special attention. I often get quite a bit of quality reading done at take-off and landing, precisely because I can't pop open a device and watch a movie or a TV show. But when I carry a Kindle or some other reader, I can't use it during that happy time. The question is, why can't I? With the 3G radio turned off—a very easy maneuver—an ebook reader uses less battery life than the Bluetooth earbud on standby that you may have forgotten to take off your ear. There is no power needed to hold a picture on E-Ink, so the battery is only taxed when the page is turned. How's this for irony? If you are looking at a page of words, your reader actually is off.

Noise-Canceling Headphones
Here's where most airlines get it right. Anything that takes 35 hours to drain a single AAA battery and has no inherent telecommunication function probably isn't going to cause the plane to go into an "uncommanded roll." Armies of Bose addicts fly friendly and unfriendly skies every day, and are generally allowed to use their own big ole cans during take-off and landing, provided they're attached to the airlines' audio system and not their own iPod. This kind of common sense needs to be applied to other devices.

In the end, what we've really got is an increasing array of devices that are replacing the books and crosswords of yore, and almost none of them have an "on-off switch" on the side. They're powered up and doing their thing, often while still nestled inside our pockets or our bags. Some are perfectly harmless beyond a shadow of a doubt, some could easily join together to form a cloud of harmless or harmful electromagnetic radiation. So why are airlines so confused? Hell, they've made special dispensations permitting knitting needles, even foot-long metal suckers. Is it too much to ask that they give equal consideration to our many cherished gadgets?

Still something you wanna know? Send questions about airlines, the FAA or rolls (commanded, uncommanded, hot and buttered) to tips@gizmodo.com, with "Giz Explains" in the subject line. Oh, and if you're dying to look up FAA regulations whenever you damn well feel like it, check out this PilotFAR iPhone app that reader (and developer) Nick Hodapp just showed me.