Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Safe Travels

A couple of responses to my post on the FAA plans to loosen rules on using electronic devices during flight called Common Sense Takes Off.

First up was Kevin from Oregon:

I spent 30 years doing electromagnetic interference work in the auto industry and in the semiconductor industry. My first few years in the field were spent with a small EMC testing company. One of the areas we studied was interference in aircraft. In the 80s there were numerous reports of aircraft electronics acting in unexplained manners, from panel flashing, to lost comm functions.We experimented with injecting high frequency signals into aircraft fuselage. An aircraft compartment is a resonant cavity and as such does not need extremely large signals to induce upset in the distributed cables throughout the skin and floor of the plane. We also conducted experiments on military heads-up displays. There was a time when I could have sat off an aircraft carrier and guided any number of planes into the water.

Automobiles are similarly susceptible, given that there are a hundred processors and controllers in any given car, and they are located on boards designed to be the cheapest possible. Does that sound comfy cozy to you? For myself, I'm on takeoff or landing in a plane, I can live without the electronics for the excruciating amount of time of 10 minutes.

A friend of mine, Dan Hoolihan is in Minnesota and he's one of the world's experts in EMC. You can ask him what he thinks. Maybe design parameters have changed since I worked on aircraft or auto electronics. I have numerous IEEE publications on these subjects, if you're interested.

While I’m definitely interested in the subject, I’m not that interested. Seriously though, I think Kevin has some valid concerns. Which is why the rules were enacted in the first place. However, based on what I’ve read, I’m also quite sure that before the FAA got to the point where they are now considering relaxing the rules they have studied the matter thoroughly. Again, from what I’ve read, the extent of the danger poised to flight instruments and controls by electronic devices isn’t completely clear. Some tests indicate that there could potentially be problems, others don’t. And no one is sure how much the potential danger would or could increase based on the amount of devices in use. Which is why it sounds like the FAA is going move slowly on this and implement changes over time starting on a trial basis.

The biggest argument for relaxing the restrictions is the fact that electronic devices are being used on flights every day with no apparent impact. A startling high number of regular fliers admitted to not following the rules and powering off their devices during takeoff and landing as instructed. And pilots and other flight crew members are increasingly using tablets and other devices in the cockpit and throughout the plane.

In the interest of aviation safety, it’s important that passengers follow the rules. If passengers don’t believe the rationale for the rules on electronic devices and blatantly disregard them, there is a risk that they will take a similar attitude toward other rules. If there truly is a safety risk in me having my Kindle on during takeoff and landing, I have no problem shutting it down (although it can be a lot longer than ten minutes from push back, taxi, takeoff, and reaching ten-thousand feet at times). But if there isn’t really a risk and we’re just following the rules because that’s how we did it thirty years ago, I believe passengers are justified in questioning their efficacy.

Next up is Nate with a more cynical take on the matter:

If electronic devices interfered with aviation equipment, we’d have had downed aircraft by now. Instead, we have flight crews using them on the flight deck with full approval, and not just regional carriers but KLM and British Airways. Homebuilt aircraft have used them for years without incident. The EAA has on-line videos showing you how.

I suspect the real reason you can’t use electronic devices near the ground is the FAA wants passengers to pay attention to the cabin crew’s directions in case of emergency, not sitting there distracted by Subway Surfer.

An interesting possibility. However, I’m not sure if shutting down our electronic devices is enough incentive to get us to pay attention to the cabin crew’s rote safety routine. My experience has been that the best way to achieve the proper attention is showing a video with the safety instructions being presented by an attractive attendant. Men have an instinctual pull to look at electronic screens and pretty women and the combination of the two is difficult to resist. Most women meanwhile are practical enough to pay attention to the safety instructions without additional inducement.

SISYPHUS ADDS: There really is no question that electronic devices can interfere with airplane electronics. Now, that doesn’t mean that one cell phone call will bring a plane down. A handful of people using devices would be unlikely to cause a catastrophic failure – but 200 people might be a different story. Airlines can’t very well announce: “Okay, all but ten of you shut off your electronic devices.”