FAA + Airlines + Personal Electronic Devices = Public Mistrust

by Paul Kiser
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Paul Kiser

Recently, a 73 year-old man flying from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Winnipeg, Canada was ordered by the flight crew of an unnamed airline to stop using his Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) device during the flight. The GPS device tracks the user’s current position by receiving (not transmitting) a signal from orbiting satellites. Currently over half the world’s airlines allow it to be used during a flight, but not this airline. The man was arrested and fined for not obeying the flight crew instructions to turn it off and also refusing to buckle his seat belt. Not surprisingly his last name was, Ego…I’m not making this up…his name was Michele Ego (See article in Winnipeg Free Press.)

…the incident was based on the Flight Attendant enforcing an 18 year-old policy of restricting the use of  personal electronic devices (PED’s) that has little or no real experimental data to justify it…

Are these really a threat to airline safety?

Clearly Mr. Ego was in the wrong by refusing to obey the instructions of the flight crew; however, the incident was caused by a flight crew enforcing an 18 year-old policy of restricting the use of personal electronic devices (PED’s) that has little or no experimental data to justify it. The zeal of some flight attendants in following this baseless policy creates a source of conflict and mistrust between the flying public and the flight crew, all of which could be avoided, if not for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the airlines.

…the policy uses decades old research that could only pose a theoretical threat by PED’s, without any experimental proof…

The lack of evidence for the restrictions on PED’s (such as MP3-4 players, GPS, cell phones, etc.) is well-known, and yet, airlines stick to a policy of restricting them, especially during takeoffs and landings because of the FAA’s order issued in 1993, that each airline must prove a PED will not interfere with the plane’s avionics before passengers are allowed to use them during a flight. The reasoning for the policy uses decades old research that concluded that PED’s pose a theoretical threat.

During a Congressional Hearing on the issue in July of 2000, over a year before the first generation of Apple’s iPod was sold, the issue of PED’s impact on a plane’s avionics was discussed. During the hearing a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) database of anonymously submitted in flight incidents was presented. Of 69,000 reports, 52 flight crews blamed passenger PED’s for the plane’s avionics problems. In most of the cases from 1992 to 1998, incidents on planes as small as a Cessna and large as a Boeing 757, related problems in navigational readings that seemed to be corrected when passengers were asked to turn off the devices.

…In each case the problem could not be duplicated under controlled test conditions…

In several of those cases, the alleged offending PED was purchased from the passenger and attempts were made to reproduce the problem. In each case the problem could not be duplicated under controlled test conditions. These results were fortified by two commissioned studies of PED’s, including cell phones, in 1983-8, (a study for the airlines,) and 1992-6, (a study for Congress.) Both studies offered no real evidence of avionics interference caused by PED’s.

(See Blog article: Why Your iPad Won’t Kill You)

Regardless of the lack of evidence, neither study could prove that PED’s were absolutely incapable of interference, and in a British study on cell phone transmissions, it was determined that the threat from PED’s was from pre-1984 devices that could theoretically cause interference with a plane’s avionics. Despite a lack of real evidence of a threat, the FAA issued its 1993 ruling that said that airlines should restrict the use of all PED’s below 10,000 feet (for takeoffs and landings) and only allow use of PED’s above 10,000 feet if they could prove it didn’t interfere with the plane’s avionics.

The fact is that today’s commercial airliner has been designed with shielding on all electronic systems to protect it against all types of electromagnetic radiation, including a strike from a lightening bolt, which seems far more likely to happen than an incident of electromagnetic interference caused by a PED like an iPod, GPS device, or cell phone*.

(*Interestingly, it was not the FAA, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) who issued a rule in 1991, that cell phones could not be used by any aircraft –including private planes and lighter-than-air balloons– because of the fear that phones in a line of sight of multiple cell phone towers could cause problems with ground-based cell phone traffic.)

With the airlines blessing, both the FAA and FCC have created an environment that forces flight attendants to be the voice of ‘Chicken Little’, by enforcing flight rules governing PED’s that make no sense in 2011. The ineptness of the FAA and the airlines in their handling of the issue of PED’s undermines the relationship of trust that passengers must have in the flight crew if they are to be believed and obeyed during critical situations involving a real threat to passenger safety.

The question that remains is whether or not the mythological threat of PED’s to aircraft safety is greater than the loss of trust of the flying public.

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Filed under Communication, Customer Relations, Ethics, Government Regulation, Information Technology, Management Practices, Public Relations, Travel

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