Can My iPod Make This Airplane Explode?S

Listening to an iPod or reading a Kindle during takeoff isn't dangerous. It's time the airlines stopped pretending that it is.

For years we've been told that gadgets produce EMI—electromagnetic interference—that cause glitches in an aircraft's avionics. A cellphone could interrupt communication between pilots and the tower for a crucial second, or a child's Game Boy could cause a light on a flight computer to go on the fritz.

We can't take excess liquids on a plane on only the slimmest evidence of any real threat. If gadgets were such a threat to safety, they'd be banned entirely.

Instead, an arbitrary set of rules established by the FAA and extended by the airlines prohibits iPods during takeoff, but explicitly allow electric shavers to be used during flight.

Hundreds of travelers at this very moment are using electronic gadgets during takeoff after the flight attendants have taken their jump seats. We're told it's dangerous. It isn't. Let's drop the pretense.*

The EMI Lie

In 1993, the International Association of Transport Aircraft (IATA) suggested that airlines prohibit the use of personal electronic devices during takeoff and landing, despite a lack of evidence that these gadgets had caused a single accident. The IATA's Terry Denny then said, "We haven't been able to trace an accident to the use of one of these devices...but we are convinced that this could happen."

In the intervening decades, gadgets became something more than a toy for the rich or nerdy, but an intrinsic sidekick for nearly everyone. Especially the iPod.

In 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration commissioned a study to see if "intentionally transmitting" gadgets like cellphones and Wi-Fi caused interference with avionics. The final report "said there is insufficient information to support a wholesale change in policies that restrict use of PEDs." ("PEDs" is FAA-speak for a gadget, or "Personal Electronic Device(s)"; a PED with a radio transmitter is a "T-PED".)

Which is to say, they couldn't find a reason to change their policy—but there hadn't been a whole lot of evidence to begin with.

Yet the FAA has approved in-flight Wi-Fi service for a variety of airlines. While the routers and systems must undergo an FAA certification, there's nothing magical about the onboard 2.4GHz signal broadcast that prevents it from interfering with the plane's avionics. The thousands of flights completed safely each day—a marvelous and commendable record, it should be noted—clearly indicate that having activated gadgets on board aircraft does nothing of negative consequence.

So your laptop's Wi-Fi won't mess up the planes avionics, but your Kindle might? How fragile are these planes?

"But it's about paying attention"

I've had conversations with pilots and other employees of airlines about this issue before, and after they realize the electromagnetic interference argument isn't going to fly, they invariably change tack to "safety". "Takeoff and landing are the most dangerous parts of the flight," they say. "And it's important that passengers be able to hear instructions from the crew in case something goes wrong."

That's a nice idea, but look around the cabin of an embarking aircraft. Parents are soothing cranky kids. People are asleep. Many passengers are drunk or medicated to help address anxiety.

If there were an accident, alerting an unaware person with headphones would take no more effort than nudging a sleeping person next to you. It's not prohibited to sleep during takeoff, just as it isn't prohibited to read a book or magazine or to be deaf. (This also presumes that a passenger could do anything to protect themselves or others during a takeoff accident, even though we all know that in a majority of incidents, there's little to do except pray.)

Ah, but what about gadgets flying around the cabin as missiles if there is turbulence? It could happen, sure, but is a Kindle appreciably more dangerous than a hardcover book? If a Nintendo DS could hurt someone during an unexpected loss of altitude, why are they ever allowed to be unstowed? The answer is simply that the likelihood of these things happening is far less than the likelihood that customers will go absolutely apoplectic if they aren't allowed some sort of inflight entertainment.

If the airlines are already able to make a judgement between ultimate safety and convenience, why not loosen up just a little more?

Little things matter

I have a lot of sympathy for flight attendants. Herding and soothing a few dozen passengers, many of whom are belligerent and rude, is a thankless job. Their jobs should be easier. They're the ones who have to explain to passengers why the pilots were too busy playing with their laptops to land the plane.

But every time a flight attendant perpetuates the lie that these harmless gadgets are somehow a threat to safety, it erodes the faith that they should be cultivating with their customers. How are we to trust someone telling us that reading a Kindle during takeoff is dangerous as we stare across a field of EMI-spewing LCD seat-back screens?

Here's a deal: I'll listen attentively to the flight safety demonstration, make doubly sure to note where the exit doors are and who I'll have to climb over to get to them—and you guys will let me listen to my iPod after the flight attendants are in their seats and I'm making peace with my god.

Trust me, I'll be a lot more apt to listen to flight attendants commands if they don't start the flight with a well-intentioned deception. And more likely to believe the FAA and the TSA when it comes to other security and safety concerns when some of their policies aren't demonstrable half-truths.

* I'm not talking about using Wi-Fi or cellphones during takeoff. I'm in complete support of "Airplane Mode" during takeoff, if not the entire flight. What anecdotal evidence there is about EMI from gadgets is almost exclusively suspected to be from radios and other transmitters.

@joeljohnson deals primarily with first-world problems, but hopes it does not interfere with your pursuit of fixing third-world ones. This isn't the last he's got to say about this issue.