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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