It’s one of modern life’s most petty annoyances: having to turn off electronic devices when a plane takes off and lands. We’re told that this is for our own safety because these devices will “interfere with the plane’s avionic systems”. Except they won’t.
Worldwide, more than 100 000 commercial flights take off and land every day. They carry around 10m people per day. The International Air Transport Association estimates that airlines will carry 3,6bn passengers in 2016.
Out of those billions of people, we can safely assume 1% do not turn off their cellphones when the plane takes off — either because of forgetfulness or wilful disobedience. French aviation authorities estimated the percentage of noncompliance much higher, at around 10%.
So that’s between 100 000 and a million passengers a day ignoring these dire warnings of mid-air disaster, putting the very plane carrying them at risk.
And yet there is not one conclusive report of an aircraft experiencing difficulty as a result of electronic equipment being used by passengers. There are a handful of anecdotal reports by crews of planes behaving strangely, but aircraft manufacturers have never been able to reproduce these symptoms in their labs.
A 2012 study by America’s Federal Aviation Administration surveyed aviation authorities around the world and found no confirmed reports of an aircraft being disrupted by cellphone use. What it did find was that a number of planes were delayed or diverted following arguments over cellphone use between passengers and crews.
The risks are so nonexistent that many countries now allow airlines to install small cellular base stations (or “picocells”) in their aircraft. These allow passengers to make calls while in flight in much the same way as many airlines now offer on-board Wi-Fi.
This is in sharp contrast to a 2003 study by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which found that “RF-emitting” devices such a cellphones do have the potential to interfere with an aircraft’s systems — particularly the on-board GPS systems.
But while the report’s intentions are good and its command of physics is unquestionable, the lack of cellphone-related accidents over the past 12 years is compelling evidence. Billions of data points from millions of real-life events trumps theory every time.
The IEEE report argues that if we simply relax all restrictions on in-flight use of electronics, the risks will increase exponentially. The study found that an average of one passenger per flight made a furtive phone call during take-off or landing. If all passengers began to do so, the effect on the aircraft would be unpredictable.
They may be right, but in reality aircraft manufacturers anticipated this issue more than two decades ago and began routinely shielding avionics equipment from foreign radio frequencies. Even the oldest planes now have extremely well-insulated cockpits.
There is no way a handheld device or even 100 hand held devices are going to bring down a 100-ton airliner. If such a thing were possible, terrorists would have done so already. You can’t take water on international flights because it might be a bomb, but you can take 20 cellphones aboard and no one will bat an eye.
Engineers and regulators are trained to be conservative and to think always about the worst-case scenario. This is exactly what we need and we shouldn’t try to change that. But that doesn’t make them right 100% of the time.
Granted there are a million more important issues to worry about than having to turn off your phone for 10 minutes. But please, treat us all like grown-ups. Cellphones don’t cause plane crashes, so stop acting like they do.
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