Monday, December 31, 2012

On Electronic Devices on Planes - Blogger Displays Ignorance

A few months ago, I sat across the dinner table from a very clever young woman who told me she never listened to the safety briefing when she flew because crashes weren't survivable. Yep, you've read about my conversation with her before when I was expressing pique at Michael O'Leary for saying safety belts don't matter. Apparently, the boss of Ryanair has a similar view that aviation safety is an irrelevant business.

Michael O'Leary has an acolyte in Nick Bilton, The New York Times technology writer who is on a tear about those "silly rules airlines have about not using electronic device use below 10,000 feet. As the year draws to a close, his most recent post is inciting some to petition the Federal Aviation Administration to do away with these pesky airline restrictions.

In January 2011, after three months of reporting and more than 30 interviews with engineers and airplane manufacturers, I wrote a story for this same newspaper suggesting that, yes indeed, electronic devices can interfere with flight systems on commercial planes. A month after the story ran, a source provided me with a confidential document from International Air Transport Association showing that the 10 reports filed by American pilots over the years was just a small part of what international pilots were finding. You can read the full story here.

Disregarding the concerns of pilots and many aviation industry experts, Bilton suggests that it is the ban that is the safety problem because if passengers continue to be denied, they're going to get violent. This is an ironic position considering it is his blog posts - not to mention his radio appearances - that are in some part responsible for confusing the public about the risk. Alec Baldwin gets some of the credit, too.

Questioning the status quo is okay, that's what good journalists do. What separates Bilton's posts from good journalism, however, is the absence of a single interview with anyone who is actually knowledgeable on the subject

He's hooked into the world of technology, alright. But what he knows does not exist in isolation. Technology, aviation and safety come together in a complex junction, one this guy's barged into after running headlong down one narrow avenue. Every time he writes, "there's no proof electronics can harm a plane's avionics" he displays how little he understands about safety as a system. 

He might sound a little more sophisticated, if he went beyond the public relations department of the FAA. (And they must take some of the blame for providing conflicting and confusing answers to Bilton's questions.) Where are the electrical engineers, the aeronautical engineers, the aviation safety specialists? They don't appear in any of the Bilton-by lined stories I've seen. 

For whatever reason, Bilton has made it his mission to get PED restrictions changed. Earlier this year the FAA requested comments on when PED use should be allowed

With the imprimatur of the Times, Bilton could be successful. Maybe when he's done he can start on that safety briefing my friend gets so annoyed about. Really' where's the proof it has any effect on safety?


Rob Mark said...

I've been flying big airplanes most of my life and the question of whether or not electronic devices actually interfere with aircraft electronics has been a bouncing ball for 10 years. Some experts say yes, some no.

With the proliferation of these devices, the airlines -- hard pressed as they are already with seemingly more important topics -- are now being nudged hard to figure out the real answer.

That's why Claire McCaskill is pushing on this too.

Time for less speculation from experts about how this MAY be a problem and time for some hard research.

If my iPod or my iPad are a problem, fine. I'll turn em off. But give me something other than speculation and rare examples that look like they MIGHT be related.

And let's not forget that quite a few airlines have been buying their cockpit crews iPads to fi=unction as Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) specifically to use in the cockpit.

Either they're all idiots or they know something other folks don't.

While my experience is certainly not proof of course, I've never experienced a problem even in the cockpit with any of this stuff and I, at least, don't know another professional pilot who has either.

Rob Mark

Christine Negroni said...

Thanks for your input here. I agree more facts less speculation is a good thing. Right now, however the few facts out there are not encouraging.In additon to the STEADS report referenced in earlier posts, please look at this report from Flightglobal.

I'll add that as airplanes become more digital as hardware transitions to software, the evidense is going to get a lot less visible in a number of areas.

John Walton said...

Christine, I just can't help thinking that the proof is out there: an innumerable number of planes that fly safely despite passengers not turning their devices off.

It could be unknowing: ("what, it has to be off-off?"), forgetfulness ("oh, my iPad is up there in the overhead locker too…never mind") or wilfulness ("this regulation is stupid and I am flouting it with my BlackBerry still on in my pocket sucking down emails until we lose reception").

But the lack of aircraft plummeting groundwards is, to me, a seriously strong case that the device ban is a matter of bureaucratic inertia rather than a safety risk.

Christine Negroni said...

Would you say that it is a good thing that pilots not have moments in which their instruments go kerflewy? Would you say that it is safer for pilots not to hear someone's personal cell phone conversation through their headsets while trying to communicate with ATC? Is it risky for GPS to give inaccurate information to the flight crew? These are some of the documented difficulties that pilots have reported and linked (anecdotally) to passenger use of gadgets. Planes plummeting to the ground is not what we are talking about here. Eliminating all sorts of smaller hazards, that can take a normal flight and make it less safe, that is the goal, the reason behind the err on the side of caution regarding use of gadgets during critical phases of flight that is below 10k.

Grumpy said...

Wait, Wait! The real problem is that too many pax have the attitudes that the rules don't apply to them. I have to wonder what's so damn important in their lives that they can't turn their gadgets off for half an hour. I'll bet they sometimes get six or seven hours' sleep a night without their worlds' coming to an end.
We're talking mostly about frequent flyers here, in whose minds the flight crews aren't much more than taxi drivers and wait-staff. I'm not surprised that the current arrogant boob is from the NY Times, which has done so much to inculcate the Triviata of their self-importance.
The issue isn't really whether PEDs interfere with avionics; it's Who's in Charge Here. It's the guy who can kick you off the plane, as Alec Baldwin found out.

Jacques said...

As an airline pilot I suffered interference of a video camera once on a B737 -300. Anytime the guy in the back was filming, I lost some instruments. Got it under control but not pleasant.

However, I have been flying Airbus FBW aircraft, and these are well protected against EMI and the use on an I pad or e-reader will not interfere. The pilots are using them in the cockpit as standard for their charts !

So we should get rid of that prohibition.

Tim Busch said...

The ORIGINAL reason for not allowing cell phones on airplanes has nothing to do with the airplanes. They are all certified against a high level of EMI.

The reason has to do with the FCC, not the FAA. The cell phone receiving system runs on a voting system where the receiver with the strongest signal assumes responsibility for that phone for the moment until another tower hears a stronger signal.

The problem with airplanes is that they are high enough that a cell phone on board provides an equal level signal to many towers. The result in the old cell system was confusion in the software, so the easy solution was to outlaw cell phones on airplanes.

Long term, they fixed the software so the system will "vote that phone off the island". No confusion. The system just ignores that phone. Yes, that means that today you may have trouble connecting in the air, depending on where you are in the world.

In the current world, there is no issue with the cell phone system OR the airplanes, but everyone holds onto the old rule without facts because they don't know any better.

The solution being sought by the airlines today is an "cell tower" on the airplane that works for the passengers and doesn't impact the system on the ground. Stop and think: if cell phones were a problem on the airplane, why in the world would the airlines be trying to make the system work ON the airplane.

Alan M Hoffberg - FL USA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan M Hoffberg - FL USA said...

When I hear interference on my headset (while performing my duties as the captain of a C172SP), I request everone to check their PED(s) . . . and sure enough, at least one PED will be the culprit.

Several months ago while IMC attempting to fly the RNAV approach into ORL RWY 25, my IFR certified GPS gave me a heading which was totally irrational. I verified the fix sequence and settings for DG, CDI, wet compass and the GPS as well as the GPS selection button. Finding them normal, I aborted the approach and switched over to the ILS.

In retrospect I think I may have left my cell phone on in error. (I need to add this to my check list!) I seem to recollect the GPS scenario happened once or twice before over the years, but not at ORL.I will attempt to reproduce the above issue at nearby ORL or home base SFB with ATC's assistance, as they are quite supportive, depending upon their work load. Usually IMC weather makes for a light local workload in comparison to fair weather training days in the area. :-)

By the way, Marc, from my experience it is not necessary to directly operate on the same frequency. Any harmonic(s) created in the electronic device may cause issues, as I remember experimenting during my early amateur radio days with milliwatt power.

I discovered that if I fail to turn off my cell phone, it will almost fully discharge during a two hour flight. My understanding is the phone goes into a "high power" search mode until it successfully connects with a tower. I have no idea how much power it consumes/transmits, nor do I have a meter covering any part of the gHz band.

From my own experience, I once conducted a two way communication over a distance of 1,500 ft using a 6 volt battery on the plate of a 6L6 final, drawing 20 ma (which is thought to be impossible) -- that's .12 VA or roughly .08 watts. My buddy at the receiving end thought I was running my 150 watt rig.

From this I deduce a weak signal might appear strong given certain electrical conditions in the cockpit.

A friend suggested a sniffer could easily identify devices in an aircraft. Carrying this idea further, I can visualize a passenger display in the aircraft showing how many devices a sniffer is detecting, while the aircraft is holding at the gate to depart. When the count reaches zero, the aircraft does its roll-back. This might get people to initially comply. :-) Or even list the seat numbers (and maybe names).

Most transport aircraft have the individual passenger displays for entertainment. The displays also function to welcome the passengers. Some airlines use them for the safety briefing, such as South African Airways.