February 2, 2012

Unpacked: Electronic Devices

Image courtesy of athomeinscottsdale on Flickr

Welcome back to Unpacked, where we demystify hot topics in the airline industry. This time around we’re tackling electronic devices, otherwise known as those little flashy tools with lots of buttons and a screen that we’re all attached to 24/7. Some of us (#guilty) even feel actual mental and emotional anguish when we have to put our phones down, whether it’s time to eat, sleep, breathe, interact with another human being face-t0-face or hop on a flight. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that Facebook will in fact still be there tomorrow.

Airlines, including yours truly, ask that you please turn off all electronic devices from the moment we close the cabin doors, during takeoff, landing and any time you’re below 10,000 feet (which generally means you’re in the ascent or descent stage of a flight). We do this because we may need your undivided attention.

Once the plane climbs above 10,000 feet, you can use approved electronic devices, which basically means anything that is in “airplane mode,” so it won’t emit radio signals which could potentially cause electromagnetic interference (EMI). There is some indication, mostly anecdotal, that EMI from personal devices have caused navigational issues, but to date there is no definitive research showing that these devices don’t cause interference. You may wonder why you can use approved devices once the flight is at altitude, and not under 10,000 feet.  Simple reason: There’s more time for your flight crew to inform you what’s happening at altitude than at or below 10,000 feet.

Now, there’s a whole cottage industry among stand-up comics regarding the science (or lack thereof) around the issue of EMI interference with navigational aids.

Let’s just say this about that: If airlines were to go down the road of testing to see if devices were safe to use in-flight, it would be really tricky to prove that something isn’t a problem, and especially challenging in this case.

We know that more and more pilots are using iPads and other electronic devices in the cockpit without incident, and airlines test the specific devices that they routinely use in the course of operating a flight.  The challenge is in testing the safety of 150 different devices being used simultaneously.   Even if we could successfully and safely run a test of this kind, though, how could we run enough tests to cover every possible combination of electronic devices that might be used at a given time to ensure that they will not interfere with the plane’s navigational technology? With new devices releasing all the time, how could we keep up with testing them all?

If some devices were found to be problematic and others not (recent arguments about using the Kindle in-flight come to mind), how would we train our inflight crewmembers to identify those specific devices and enforce this? Having our inflight crewmembers check every device on-board every flight could cause delays and that wouldn’t be fun for anyone.

And let’s face it, even if accurate testing were possible, it would be a pricey venture. We can’t speak on behalf of other airlines, but at JetBlue, we’ve made decisions to invest in things like the friendliest crewmembers in the industry, new aircraft that will fly leaner and greener, and satellite technology for in-flight connectivity to name a few.

We’re not sticklers on the subject by any means. Some have argued that we’ve never seen any problems from electronic devices and should be allowed to use them, while others have argued that history may tell us otherwise. We’re open to any new developments around this hot topic and will consider amending our current philosophy should real evidence emerge that tells us more of the story than what we currently know.

Check out our previous editions of Unpacked and stay tuned for the next up!

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39 Comments on “Unpacked: Electronic Devices”

  • Posted by Bob on February 2, 2012 at 11:55 am

    My ipod nano doesn’t have a radio transmitter, and I’m told to switch it off below 10,000. My watch is also electronic, and no one tells me to turn it off — which is good ‘cos it don’t have an off button. But here’s my question. If I wear my ipad nano on the watch strap, can I listen to music below 10,000? If not, why not? What/s the difference between an ipad nano and a big electronic watch?

  • Posted by Nancy on February 2, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    It usually seems to take significantly less than 30 minutes to be able to use them again.. there is tv/radio to keep ya entertained.. I guess I would be worried about anyone who cant handle themselves for 30 minutes without personal electronics (after all they do still have the tv and the radio?).. after all my kids have always been able to, cant we adults too??

  • Posted by Graham on February 2, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Hi Bob, of course you are right – most new electronic devices don’t even have an “off” switch and the closest you can get to “off” is some variety of standby mode. The only way to ensure a device is really unpowered to remove its batteries, and even that isn’t an option in most cases.

    I am an electrical engineer as well as a JetBlue pilot. Without exception ALL electronic devices are capable of radiating energy while their circuits are powered. Consumer electronic devices have to comply with numerous regulations that ensure the energy remains within certain limits, but there is no way to be 100% certain even those limits will never interfere with an aircraft’s sensitive systems. To permit general use of “electronic devices” during critical phases of flight would require millions of dollars of study by the FAA, aircraft manufacturers and airlines. Probably hundreds of millions.

    Given the enormous proliferation of portable devices, and the FAA’s incredibly safe guidelines, it is not likely that we will see relief in this area any time soon. Besides, it is a good idea to listen to the inflight safety briefing, that’s why they want your undivided attention during those couple of moments.

    Airlines are incredibly safe, but that is the result of an uncompromising pursuit of safety at all levels. This is just one manifestation of that goal.

  • Posted by Judith Draper on February 2, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Your big electronic watch does not block you from hearing any evacuation or emergency commands. Your nano and it’s earbuds does. Taxi, takeoff and landing are the most vulnerable times for an aircraft and many things can go wrong during that time. If you are engrossed in your music, you may not hear or be aware of anything else. Basically, for your safety we want your attention.

  • Posted by Thomas on February 2, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Well said, Judith. Even a blog thoroughly explaining this apparently doesn’t get through to some people because they don’t PAY ATTENTION. :)

  • Posted by jarred on February 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    And at JetBlue they let you listen to the music and the tv below 10,000feet cause they can control that. They can make announcements and interrupt the tv but if your listening to your iPod watch with your big noise cancelling headphones you wouldn’t be able to hear them and would be clueless of what’s going on. Ultimately just wait until 10,000 feet then you can play with your Kindle, Nook, snock, blackberry, mapple products all you want.

  • Posted by Chris on February 2, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Your in-flight crew routinely note that such restrictions flow from “federal regulations.” Could you please provide a citation to the specific portion of the FAR from which these restrictions derive?

  • Posted by Juls on February 2, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    The reason why they tell you to turn off your iPods is because if you are blasting your music and theres an emergency you are deafened by your music and can’t hear commands. (which usually happen at takeoff and landing).

  • Posted by carol on February 2, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    sounds good :) thankyou for the info!

  • Posted by Chris on February 2, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    Also, you suggest that below 10,000 it is important that passengers be free from distraction so that the flight crew can get their immediate attention. I appreciate the circumstance, but fail to see how an electronic reading device — e.g., iPad, Nook, Kindle, etc — is any more distracting than printed reading material — e.g., book, newspaper.

  • Posted by Sharon on February 2, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    But many people DON’T comply with regulations, and DON’T turn off their stupid phones…what then? Are they really endangering the rest of us? And if so, can we administer a “citizen’s slap-in-the-face”??!!

  • Posted by Maggie on February 2, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    It’s usually about 10 minutes that you can’t use the devices. Pick up a real book! Read travel articles from the on-board magazine. Or just sit there relaxing. Really? 20 minutes unplugged in one day will kill ya?!

  • Posted by Eddie on February 2, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    with regards to cell phones.. i think it would be pretty difficult for your cell phone to connect to a cell tower 35,000 feet away, and thats if the plane doesnt go any higher and if the planes directly under the tower (basicly its around 40,000 feet away)

    now a cell tower on the plane.. that should be jetblues next step (if they legalize cell phone use in flight)

  • Posted by Lee on February 2, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    You are really selling your flight crews short if you think they need to be trainined to recognize the difference between an e-reader and a set of head phones. Don’t give me a magazine to read if you won’t let me read my kindle/nook/ipad. Stupid is the only way to descibe such and inconsistant “policy”. Are your crews really that dumb?

  • Posted by Kelley on February 2, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    I like Nancy’s reply above. Seriously, as adults, you can’t sit for MAYBE 30 minutes on a Jet Blue plane that has a tv and radio and be entertained? Most people only want these devices because they are told they can’t have them.

  • Posted by Paul on February 2, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Sharon, just don’t do it Steven Slater style ;-)

  • Posted by Doris on February 2, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    I flew on another carrier (for work) and the pilot requested all electronics off for take off. The doors were shut and he was ready to pull from the gate, but could not as he was able to tell someone on the flight did not turn ott their cell phone. He made the announcement several times and finallly took off. Upon arriving to our destination, the pilot announced it was ok to use cell phones if available. At that moment, the passenger sitting next to me pulls out his cell phone, and flips it open and then asks me “was I supposed to turn off this before we took off?” HENCE, proof that people do not listen and/or have selective listening. This man was not wearing headphones nor was he reading. See, people do not listen.

    Doris
    bendor6255@yahoo.com

  • Posted by Donna on February 2, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    After doing my best to get all the electronic devices turned off in my section of the cabin, it is often frustrating to find the flight attendant sitting next to me on the forward jumpseat with his or her cellphone fully on texting away as the plane is taking off. How do we expect customers to comply when on-duty flight attendants are using their cellphones in full view of the cabin on take off and landing?

  • Posted by Marlin Yoder on February 2, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    I always figured if it really was a potential problem, the airline wouldn’t rely on us the passengers to comply with the supposed regulation, you have to know not everybody turns them off.
    The flight crew doesn’t always even know, I was on a Delta flight recently where the stewardess said flight mode was not enough, we had to actually cut the power. Never heard that before, and I just put in flight mode and everything was fine.

  • Posted by Christine Negroni on February 2, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Thanks jetBlue for the shout out. I’ve written LOTS on this subject which interested readers can find here

    http://christinenegroni.blogspot.com/2011/01/raise-your-hand-held-if-you-use-your.html

    here

    http://christinenegroni.blogspot.com/2011/11/blowing-circuit-over-everybodys.html

    and here

    http://christinenegroni.blogspot.com/2011/03/handhelds-on-airplanes-bigger-problem.html

    And even, my thoughts on the very handsome Alec Baldwin, here

    http://christinenegroni.blogspot.com/2011/12/alec-baldwin-dont-go-actin-all-stupid.html

  • Posted by JeanCarl on February 2, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Turning off the devices for a couple of minutes isn’t all that difficult and looking out the window is pretty cool. I like to think of the rule as a way to reduce the number of distractions during a time when they want your attention the most.

    To those who say the televisions are available during takeoff, you need to take a few more flights with JetBlue. Most of the time JetBlue takes over and run their introduction and ads which lock the television into one boring mode. As far as I remember, it’s like a minute or so after you get to cruising altitude that the television finally allows you control. For those AYCJ 2010 alum, we can all vouch for Daughtry during every takeoff!

  • Posted by CollegeStudent on February 2, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    I guess Jetblue isn’t away of college research projects. Most undergrad is unpaid, you can use a plane that is out of commission or a small one (The electronics work almost the same). It wouldn’t cost a ton of money they just don’t want to bother with it. Also, you wouldn’t have to test every combination. You just test the effects of 2 or more phones at the same time. Most likely, it would just be a matter of testing several phones but not even all of them. Most phones are made in 2 ways with two types of output.

    Also, What pisses me off, is I sat on a runway for 2 hours at JFK one time and they would not let me turn on my ipod. I wanted to read a book but I needed a steady noise instead of a bunch of people talking but no… on a runway it is not allowed. This is ridiculous.

    Finally, JeanCarl is right. Jetblue blocks out the TV during take off to play ads. Its several minutes before you can watch again.

  • Posted by Donna on February 2, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    JetBlue blocks out the television in hopes of getting your attention during the life vest and oxygen mask demo. This is the only time during the flight that this information will be presented, so hopefully you won’t find the sports pages or playing with your cell phone more important. If you are hoping for a second demo or a private lesson during the frantic moments of an emergency evacuation, it will not happen. Flight attendants at that time will be locating usable exits, opening them and evacuating people who paid attention to the safety demo and know what to do.

    Also I would like to point out to Marlin Yoder that JetBlue does require that your devices be completely powered down during take off and landing and that they be only used with the wireless function turned off (airplane mode) during flight. These requirements are announced by flight attendants on every flight.

  • Posted by Valerie on February 2, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    What about a camera, say a Canon that runs on AA batteries? I’ve been told to turn mine off on some flights and been able to have it on and film take offs and landings on others. Do cameras have the same effect as cell phones and ipods?

  • Posted by Valerie on February 2, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    What about cameras? I’ve heard we can have them on and that we can’t. I’m talking a Canon that takes AA batteries. Do they interfere?

  • Posted by Dave on February 2, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    So lets go with the undivided attention and hearing the flight crew. On another airline recently we had an inflight emergency where a door seal failed. The 250-300 mph wind coming through the hatch and the aircraft trying to maintain pressurization made it impossible to hear anything. Until the plane stopped on the ground. And, yes I turned my phone on and sent some texts just in case. Having been in real emergencies in aircraft(other than that one), cars and war ships as well. Usually (actually every time)when an emergency happens you cant hear anything and having an ipod on or off makes no difference just as putting your tray table and seats in the upright position. Does any one other than those who are blind followers actually believe that the 2 or 3 degree position change will make any difference in your survivability on a plane that is going to hit something at 200 to 700 miles an hour? NO they dont. So why play the game? The whole electronics thing goes back to the 40s 50s 60s and even 70s when your little “portable” radio had a huge magnet that could and sometimes did interfere with the actuall real magnetic compass and unshielded uhf, vhf gear navigation gear that was actually very susceptible to interference. If I were to get a flight on a B-24 or DC-3 yes, I would definitely not use electronics. But today’s airliners are hardened. the systems are pulling data from space and if you tell me that an iPhone, laptop or ipod can interfere with a transmission that is puncturing the exosphere that protects this planet from the friggen SUN to get to this plane Im calling you high on crack. Its time your policies reflected the technology of 2012 and not 1912.

  • Posted by Al on February 3, 2012 at 12:02 am

    I dunno what kindle Nick Bilton uses to test doubt on using the Kindle on planes. E-ink reader displays do emit very low radiation, but the kindle I have is the DX with whispernet. These Kindle DX with whispernets and stuff don’t have a “turn off whispernet” button. You have to turn it off from it’s clunky interface that will take 30 seconds to turn it off on-screen. Suppose I browse the web with that thing or download a huge book, and then I go “oh schnapp!! I gotta board”, so I turn off the DX, but it’s not really off because it’s at sleep mode as most Kindle DX machines do, and I’m on my plane. I’m like cool. As soon as the plane takes off the taxiway, it swerves to the right due to communications problems in it’s navigation system. Passengers get testy while I go “Did I do that?”. I think one thing the test isn’t looking is Amazon’s Whispernet, can that cause the plane to swerve or disrupt the nav systems? I dunno, I’m down to check it out and test it though.

  • Posted by Marlin Yoder on February 3, 2012 at 12:17 am

    For those who comment about people not being able to make it for 30 minutes (or whatever amount of time) without a gadget or music or whatever, that’s not the point of this discussion, the issue is whether it’s a bogus rule/law or whatever.

    Another thing to point out, a device like a kindle that uses eink technology, doesn’t even use power till you turn a page. So you could be reading a page and the device is not even powered up.

  • Posted by Paulo on February 3, 2012 at 12:20 am

    Consider this, the fuel control system on modern airplanes is electronic, this is the “thing” that regulates or sends the right amount of fuel to the engines. Imagine if there was enough interference from 150 different devices producing different levels of EMI to cause the wrong amount of fuel to flow to the engine say on takeoff…. Although unlikely but it could certaintly happen, modern airliners have had the unlikely happen with catastrophic results, WHY TAKE A CHANCE?! It’s simple turn the damn thing off! The people always on their earphones and e-readers are usually always clueless to what’s happening in the cabin many times they don’t even have their seatbelts fastened even after repeated announcements by the crew.

  • Posted by Pablo on February 3, 2012 at 1:45 am

    Some airlines allow use of GPS units in-flight, others do not. Does anyone know why?

  • Posted by FL on February 3, 2012 at 3:52 am

    For a college student, your writing is awful. Clown college or barber college?

  • Posted by Bryan on February 3, 2012 at 6:28 am

    “We do this because we may need your undivided attention.” This is the best explanation in the blog post because it doesn’t get into the “why” for every electronic device out there on the market. Honestly, I’m a bit baffled by all the talk about testing electronic devices and EMI. I’m going to stick with the theory that modern airplanes are probably robust enough to handle a plane load of cell phone signals without a problem. If this isn’t the case, perhaps we need to think about some manufacturer redesigns.

  • Posted by Sathya on February 3, 2012 at 8:08 am

    This is really good article. I really appreciate that at least Jetblue came up with such good article on explaining these things.

    I can’t believe that people can’t stay away from their devices for short time. Your stupidity may cause serious trouble to someone else. My Ipod, My kindle, My Ipad, My Nook, My mp3 player blah.. blah.. If you don’t like safety rules, take a train or bus.

  • Posted by Angie on February 3, 2012 at 10:11 am

    It is very frustrating to have to tell the same people, over and over to turn off their electronics, and even more frustrating when they just turn off the screen of it, as if we all didn’t know that you actually have to wait and power down the device. It is different to turn the screen off than to turn Off the device. As crew member we do what is required and it is for the safety of everyone in the plane, it should not be so hard for people to disconnect for about 30 minutes. At the end of the day, it is for your own good, you want to be fully aware of what is going on in the event of an emergency. I advice people to really pay attention to the safety demo, sometimes people don’t know how to Unbuckle their seat belts, or where the life vest is, or how to even use the oxygen mask. The crew is there for your safety and you should respect them and their duties, and if they tell you to turn off your electronics, there is a reason behind it.

  • Posted by bob on February 3, 2012 at 11:12 am

    If you need your phone that much you need help. This is your one opportunity to relax so enjoy it. Life is to short to be a slave to electronics and yes I am saying it “you a re a looser” if you just have to have it on, and that’s what all the other passengers are thinking. You do have the choice of not flying if your so addicted. Get a life. You probably text at restaurants.

  • Posted by ash on February 3, 2012 at 11:27 am

    Not worth risking death. I’ll turn off my phone, and can only hope the other passengers will, as well. If for no other reason, for respect of the rules. Wanna use your device on your trip? Drive, or take a bus.

  • Posted by ipod nano on February 7, 2012 at 8:46 am

    Hey Blog,
    Cool Post, I guess we really are the land of plenty; most people have some sort of electronics in their home. T.V., cell phones, DVD players, and VCR’s, etc. The list goes on and on. And many families who would never be considered rich have one or more of these electronic devices. This is a great place to start with energy savings.
    Great Job!
    Apple Ipod Store

  • Posted by Mark on February 25, 2012 at 2:06 am

    To Chris who requested the Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) about electronic devices… here it is… FAR 121.306

    To Lee… a Nook/Kindle/iPad falls under this FAR and is an electronic device and MUST be turned off.

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