The great airplane gadget debate (5×8 – 1/2/13)

Can gadgets bring down a plane, the recession gang, Bakken by air, back to work at a monument that may not be finished in our lifetime and let winter begin!


It’s 2013 and we still have to turn off iPads and laptops and cellphones because otherwise the plane will crash or get lost… or something. We really don’t know; it’s a policy that we continue to live with because we don’t know the planes won’t crash unless we do these things.

Now, a big brouhaha has broken out between two fairly prominent bloggers over the issue.

A couple of days go, Nick Bilton, of the New York Times Tech blog insisted that this is an outmoded policy, noting that pilots have replaced their briefcases of charts and papers with iPads. If the pilots using tech devices won’t bring a plane down, why can’t the great unwashed in the back log on?

Dealing with the F.A.A. on this topic is like arguing with a stubborn teenager. The agency has no proof that electronic devices can harm a plane’s avionics, but it still perpetuates such claims, spreading irrational fear among millions of fliers.

A year ago, when I first asked Les Dorr, a spokesman for the F.A.A., why the rule existed, he said the agency was being cautious because there was no proof that device use was completely safe. He also said it was because passengers needed to pay attention during takeoff.

When I asked why I can read a printed book but not a digital one, the agency changed its reasoning. I was told by another F.A.A. representative that it was because an iPad or Kindle could put out enough electromagnetic emissions to disrupt the flight. Yet a few weeks later, the F.A.A. proudly announced that pilots could now use iPads in the cockpit instead of paper flight manuals.

The F.A.A. then told me that “two iPads are very different than 200.” But experts at EMT Labs, an independent testing facility in Mountain View, Calif., say there is no difference in radio output between two iPads and 200. “Electromagnetic energy doesn’t add up like that,” said Kevin Bothmann, the EMT Labs testing manager.

But Christine Negroni, who writes the Flying Lessons blog for the Seattle PI, says Bilton doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and she says it in an unusually strident way, questioning Bilton’s professionalism in writing an article that contains not a “single interview with anyone who is actually knowledgeable on the subject.”

He’s hooked into the world of technology, alright. But what he knows does not exist in isolation. Technology, aviation and safety come together in a complex junction, one this guy’s barged into after running headlong down one narrow avenue. Every time he writes, “there’s no proof electronics can harm a plane’s avionics” he displays how little he understands about safety as a system.

He might sound a little more sophisticated, if he went beyond the public relations department of the FAA. (And they must take some of the blame for providing conflicting and confusing answers to Bilton’s questions.) Where are the electrical engineers, the aeronautical engineers, the aviation safety specialists? They don’t appear in any of the Bilton-by lined stories I’ve seen.

For whatever reason, Bilton has made it his mission to get PED restrictions changed. Earlier this year the FAA requested comments on when PED use should be allowed.

With the imprimatur of the Times, Bilton could be successful. Maybe when he’s done he can start on that safety briefing my friend gets so annoyed about. Really,where’s the proof it has any effect on safety?

Which bring up an obvious question. It’s 2013. Who doesn’t know how a seat belt buckles and unbuckles?


Was your child born during a recession? You might want to start putting bail money away, a new study suggests.

Researchers focused on kids born in the early ’80s and found some of the delinquent behaviors were more common among those kids surrounded by higher unemployment during infancy.

Teens were 9 percent more likely use pot if the region where they turned 1 had a 1 percent drop in employment during the early 1980s.

More research: If being fat is unhealthy, how do we explain the fact overweight people have a lower death risk than the “normal?” A new report analyzing 100 other studies finds that those whose body mass index — BMI — classified them as overweight had less risk of dying than people of normal weight.


A Fargo photographer is capturing the changing nature of North Dakota.

KXNet – Bismarck/Minot/Williston/Dickinson

(H/T: Ben Chorn)


Crazy Horse dream going strong at 65 from Crazy Horse Memorial on Vimeo.

How many of us would ever start a project knowing it could never be completed in our lifetime? NPR takes a look at the impressive Crazy Horse sculpture, being carved out of a mountain in South Dakota. The man with the idea is dead, his wife is 86 and seven of their children have taken up the project.

“He said, ‘Go slowly so you do it right.’ And, I, for one, would like to have it go faster, but there are so many things that you have to do in order to do it right that it takes the time,” Ruth Ziolkowski says.


Now that winter has finally taken hold in Minnesota, Minnesotans head for the ice.

… and sometimes under the ice.


The fiscal deal approved late Tuesday night allows income taxes to rise for individuals earning over $400,000 and couples making more than $450,000. It avoids the major spending cuts and widespread tax increases known as the “fiscal cliff.” Today’s Question: What do you think of the deal to stop the country’s fall off the fiscal cliff?


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: Politics of the fiscal cliff.

Second hour: Personal finance for the new year.

Third hour: Notable books

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): Former Sen. and VP Walter Mondale, speaking at the Humphrey School about filibuster reform and the ways of the Senate.

Talk of the Nation (1-2 p.m.) – The Political Junkie.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – “Stand Your Ground” laws have been in the public spotlight since last year’s shooting of Trayvon Martin. Nationwide, they’ve been under the microscope of social scientists analyzing crime data. NPR will report on what a new study has found about states with Stand Your Ground laws and their unintended consequences.

  • Robert Moffitt

    #1 reminds me of this scene from “West Wing”


    [approaches Toby] Sir, I need you to turn off your computer.


    I’m just about done.


    I need you to turn off your laptop, sir. It interferes with our navigational



    You know when you guys say that, it sounds ridiculous to most people, right?



    Another Flight Attendant approaches.


    Mr. Ziegler? A message was just patched up to the cockpit for you. I’m not sure I’ve got it right. POTUS in a bicycle accident?


    [stops typing and looks up] You got it right. [reaches for his cell phone]


    You can’t use your phone until we land, sir.


    We’re flying in a Lockheed Eagle series L-1011. It came off the line 20 months ago and carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?


    You can call when we land, sir.


    [calling as she walks away] Also, I never got my peanuts.

  • jacku

    #1 also reminds me of a Mythbusters episode where they checked if cell phones interfered with plane equipment. They busted it. If I remember they determined you would have to have a cell phone that emitted far more power than the normal phone to effect older unshielded equipment. What they found out is, at least for cell phones, its an FCC rule because of the way signals would potentially clog networks. A cell phone in an airplane would hook to many towers at once.

  • jon

    not using your cell phone on a plane actually makes a lot of sense… Not because it might bring the plane down, but because at 30,000 feet how many cell towers do you think your cell phone is going to pick up? And where will they be in relation to you and your phone?

    The answer is fairly suprising… Turns out that cell towers have directional antennas pointed out and down from where they are… which means the towers you pick up are actually quiet far away from your actual location… and you will be cycling through them fairly quickly since you are moving fairly quickly. This can actually cause issues on the cell network, it was built with your phone having a maximum number of connections it can make at a time… So cell phones, and anything radio that is making ground contact could cause issues, both for the device making those connections, and for the ground towers… not so much for the air plane.

    The issue as I see it isn’t one of airliner safety but one of consumer education on how their devices work, and how they will work in a plane. TV and movies continually show people making cell phone calls from planes just fine, some times even when they are over the ocean in areas where there is no way they could get reception… and while it is conceivable that a cell phone might work in a plane, and it is conceivable that several of them might work in a plane… having 100’s of phones jumping cell towers at the rate of 1-2 towers every few seconds, it a recipe for disaster for the cell phone companies.

    Is it the Job of the FAA to regulate this? Probably not… more like the FCC… Does it mean we should have cell phones on planes? probably not. But other electronic devices or cell phones with the cellular radio turned off, shouldn’t be an issue.

    P.s. why are they so stubborn about it during take off, and so much more laxed on the policy during touch down? Has any one else noticed this or is it just me?

  • Dave S.

    Re: #2 More Research – This is another instance of a study comparing the risk of dying between various populations. Has anyone informed them that we all have the same risk of dying? Seriously, it seems to me there’s missing information in the article. If it said “risk of dying at an earlier-than-average age,” or something along those lines, it would make sense.

  • John O.

    #1) The restriction certainly makes sense with respect to older aircraft (MD 80’s, or older 747s for example) where wiring is probably not shielded as much for RFI interference.

    My question is, however, with newer aircraft (for instance, a 787 “Dreamliner”), wouldn’t the designers have incorporated improved shielding for wiring harnesses, etc.?

    Secondly, a growing number of aircraft have the technology to act as giant “hotspots” that passengers can log into (activated at or above 10,000 ft., of course). To what extent would that affect in-flight operations?

  • Tom

    The Great Airplane Gadget debate –

    This discussion reminded me that that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or IEEE and done some testing on what what actual effect there would be on aircraft if the consumer devices were allowed to be used. The study was done in 2006.

    The full story is here:

    The conclusion stated the following:

    Consumer devices that meet FCC emission limits can exceed safe interference limits set by the FAA for avionics, because the FCC and the FAA do not harmonize their regulations. A 2003 study of cellular telephones by NASA highlighted the problem. On the one hand, the study found that of eight cellphones tested (four CDMA and four GSM), no individual unit would be likely to interfere with any of the commonly used aircraft navigation radio systems, although there was still some potential for interference in worst-case scenarios. However, the same study determined that spurious emissions from cellular phones at the allowable FCC limits would cut dangerously into safety margins for avionics, even when considering “reasonable minimum” radio receiver interference thresholds. More troubling, the study found that intermodulation between some cellular phones caused emissions in the frequency bands used by an aircraft’s GPS and distance-measuring equipment. The report identified other combinations of common passenger transmitters that could potentially produce intermodulation effects in aircraft communication and navigation RF bands.

    The article also stated:

    In March 2004, acting on a number of reports from general aviation pilots that Samsung SPH-N300 cellphones had caused their GPS receivers to lose satellite lock, NASA issued a technical memorandum that described emissions from this popular phone. It reported that there were emissions in the GPS band capable of causing interference. Disturbingly, though, they were low enough to comply with FCC emissions standards.

    Our data and the NASA studies suggest to us that there is a clear and present danger: cellphones can render GPS instrument useless for landings. Clearly, the cause of the problem is that the FCC issues RF emission standards for consumer electronics, conferring only minimally with the FAA and with no formal consideration of the implications of those standards for the aircraft environment. For its part, the FAA relies on the airlines to initiate safety plans and, like other government agencies, defers to the FCC on questions of electromagnetic radiation.

  • BJ


    I haven’t seen it since the mid 90’s – looks almost the same

  • Kevin Watterson

    I flew four flights with American over the holidays, they were very clear about turning devices all the way to off and that airplane mode was not good enough. My personal view about this is that we can all do without our devices for 15 minutes and that you should be paying attention to your flight during its most dangerous moments of takeoff and landing, including putting down the printed book.

    That being said, I think American (and maybe other airlines, too) would be well-served to just add 15 seconds to their request and tell passengers that devices might interfere with the flight controls and that they should pay attention. Right now they’re just bossing people around without giving any reasoning, something that I’ve always found will create unnecessary resistance.

    I also pointed out to my parents that just because we’re 6 rows back from the cockpit doesn’t mean there aren’t flight controls around us. Knowing that the wires controlling the wings and tail of the airplane were right over our heads and under our feet sorta drives the point home that, yes, their cell phone *could* mess something up.