Science Be Damned, John Quain’s Gut Tells Him Electronics Are Dangerous During Flight

By | January 1, 2012
Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Several generations ago, a heretofore unimportant Senator arose brandishing a list which he claimed contained the names of 207 known Communists who had infiltrated the State Department.  Never mind that Senator McCarthy had no such list, that the number changed from day to day.  He knew that State was crawling with Communists. He felt it.  The triumph of his feelings over facts destroyed lives and freedoms and are a black mark on this country’s history.

Today, the triumph of feelings over facts remains a danger in public life.  Witness the FAA‘s continued ban on electronic devices during takeoff and landing. Despite no evidence(anecdotes are not evidence) that these devices are at all problematic, and evidence to the contrary, the FAA continues to enforce this ban.  Disobedience of this regulation is widespread, and is a safety issue itself as fliers who don’t take this rule seriously are likely to flout other, evidence-based regulations as well.

John Quain is a veteran technology journalist, but his recent article on Fox News in support of the ban leaves us scratching our heads. Quain writes:

Some recent tests have suggested this is all unnecessary. Cell phones and other electronic devices do not, indeed could not, interfere with cockpit communications or navigation. But this is clearly false.

First Quain lumps cell phones and other electronic devices like Kindles and iPads together, then dismisses the tests as clearly false without explanation.  Data says not a problem. Quain knows better.

Quain continues with some irrelevant anecdotes about how he has had devices interfere with each other, and then this gem

And what about those little e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle? They look innocent enough. Unfortunately, they can also contain embedded transceivers that constantly ping the network for updates, even if you’re not using them. And with dozens of different tablets and e-readers on the market — some with cellular services and some not — it would be nearly impossible for a flight attendant to determine the difference. Can you imagine how long it would take your flight to take off if they had to check every single gizmo?

It’s true of course that Kindles and other similar devices have wifi or cellular service. Of course wifi is apparently safe enough that airlines charge an arm and a leg to allow you to use it in flight. But the real flaw in Quain’s argument as that these myriad of devices are on planes now and in many cases are left on for takeoff and landing, as are many cell phones. Flight attendants don’t check them now, and wouldn’t need to check them then. In fact,airline pilot Patrick Smith writes in a very balanced column
Even if not actively engaged with a call, a cellphone’s power-on mode dispatches bursts of potentially harmful energy. For this reason, they must be placed in the proverbial “off position” prior to taxiing, as requested during the never tedious pre-takeoff safety briefing. The policy is clearly stated, but obviously unenforced, and we assume the risks are minimal or else phones would be collected or inspected visually rather than relying on the honor system. I’d venture to guess at least half of all cellular phones, whether inadvertently or out of laziness, are left on during flight. That’s about a million phones a day in the United States alone. If indeed this was a recipe for disaster, I think we’d have more evidence by now.
Smith goes on to tell us that the problem with Kindles and other electronics during takeoff has nothing to do with interference
As for the restrictions pertaining to computers, iPods and certain other devices during takeoffs and landings, this has nothing to do with electronic interference. In theory, a poorly shielded notebook computer can emit harmful energy, but the main reason laptops need to be put away is to prevent them from becoming high-speed projectiles in the event of an impact or sudden deceleration, and from hampering an evacuation. Your computer is a piece of luggage, and luggage needs to be stowed so it doesn’t kill somebody or get in the way. The same holds for iPads and Kindles. Sure, a book can weigh as much as a Kindle, but this is where the line is drawn.
I don’t know about you, but I’d take my chances with a 6 ounce Kindle over a 34 ounce copy of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography.
Quain ends with a ridiculous appeal to emotion designed to make the reader ignore the complete lack of evidence presented
And not being able to use an electronic device then wasn’t much of a hardship. After all, I’d rather arrive late to pick up my daughter than not arrive at all.
Quain is obviously not alone.  The FAA continues to promote this approach, as does the TSA(a story for another time).  We need to move to an evidence based regulatory regime that uses Occam’s razor to put into place only those regulations that can be shown to be necessary, and clearly explain the reason for the rules.  The ban on electronics has been described variously as because of interference, because of danger from flying objects, and because of distraction of passengers at critical junctures.  Proponents of the regulation artfully jump from one reason to another as each is shown to be smoke and mirrors. One proponent claimed to me that it would be too difficult and costly to test all devices, ignoring the fact that under FCC Part 15, all electronic devices sold in the United States are already tested for electromagnetic emissions.  We’ll keep pushing for the restoration of sanity here; a straightforward evidence-based regulation regarding the use of electronics in flight. In the meantime, you can always shave until you reach your cruising altitude.