Do You Really Need To Turn Off Your Electronic Device Before Takeoff And Landing?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What peanuts were to the airline industry in the ’70s and ’80s, the “Please turn off all electronic devices, including cell phones, PDAs and computers prior to takeoff” announcement is now for the ’00s and, well, whatever these are (the teens?). Is there anything as irksome as having to sit there, like a scorned schoolchild, music-, movie- and textless, for what is often the most boring part of the flight: runway taxiing?

Which begs the question: Do you really need to turn off your electronic device before takeoff and landing? Was that passenger on a United Express flight justified in threatening Arianna Huffington when she recently wouldn’t turn off her BlackBerry? What exactly would happen if I were to fire up my Commodore 64 and play some Q*bert minutes before landing?

The NY Times recently tackled this Sphinx-like riddle, and lo-and-behold, it turns out, it may actually matter (and, for good measure, may be a matter of life and death). The quick answer is, yes, your innocuous looking iPhone actually emits electromagnetic waves, and this could cause interference with your plane’s electronic guidance systems. And, it turns out, there have actually been plane crashes attributed to this interference.

Safety experts suspect that electronic interference has played a role in some accidents, though that is difficult to prove. One crash in which cellphone interference with airplane navigation was cited as a possible factor involved a charter in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2003. Eight people died when the plane flew into the ground short of the runway.

Since 2000, there have been at least 10 voluntary reports filed by pilots in the United States with the Aviation Safety Reporting System, administered by NASA. In 2007, one pilot recounted an instance when the navigational equipment on his Boeing 737 had failed after takeoff. A flight attendant told a passenger to turn off a hand-held GPS device and the problem on the flight deck went away.

The good news is that newer planes have better protection against such signals. The bad news is that your average Delta commuter jet harkens back to the Reagan administration. But maybe one day, all electronic devices, electromagnetic-emitting or not, will operate in an aviation nation where they will not be judged by their emissions, but by the quality of their playlist.

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