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Do Our Gadgets Really Threaten Planes?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

cell flight

On Aug. 31, the Federal Aviation Administration requested public comment on its longstanding policy of prohibiting the use of personal electronics during takeoffs and landings. The restrictions date back to 1991 and were motivated in part by anecdotal reports from pilots and flight crews that electronic devices affected an airliner’s navigation equipment or disrupted communication between the cockpit and the ground. Over the years, however, Boeing has been unable to duplicate these problems, and the FAA can only say that the devices’ radio signals “may” interfere with flight operations.

To gather some empirical evidence on this question, we recently conducted an online survey of 492 American adults who have flown in the past year. In this sample, 40% said they did not turn their phones off completely during takeoff and landing on their most recent flight; more than 7% left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active. And 2% pulled a full Alec Baldwin, actively using their phones when they weren’t supposed to.

Consider what these numbers imply. The odds that all 78 of the passengers who travel on an average-size U.S. domestic flight have properly turned off their phones are infinitesimal: less than one in 100 quadrillion, by our rough calculation. If personal electronics are really as dangerous as the FAA rules suggest, navigation and communication would be disrupted every day on domestic flights. But we don’t see that.

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