Just this week, American Airlines took time off from its bankruptcy to proudly announce it has been given FAA approval to allow its pilots to use iPads in airplane cockpits.
This is not a revolutionary or innovative step – other airlines have been using iPads for some time, both in the cockpit and in the cabin (where flight attendants can access their manuals, passenger manifests, and other materials on iPads too).
Now – think about this. We – the fare paying passengers – are not allowed to use our iPads or other electronic devices while the plane is on the ground or under 10,000 ft, but – and after rigorous testing by the FAA confirming no safety issues – the pilots and crew are allowed to use theirs.
In case you’re wondering, the pilots don’t have any special version of the iPad. They have exactly the same, ‘off the shelf’ iPads that we have. And whereas we’re some feet or tens of feet away from all the electronics in the cockpit, their iPads are within easy reach of all the equipment that we’re told might be affected if we have our iPads on.
This article reports on the issue, and adds a totally spurious claim from the FAA :
The F.A.A. did say it had limited the number of approved devices in the cockpit to two, one for each pilot. “This involves a significantly different scenario for potential interference than unlimited passenger use, which could involve dozens or even hundreds of devices at the same time,” the F.A.A. said in the statement.
On the face of it, you’d think that 100 electronic devices would be, well, 50 times more dangerous than two electronic devices. But, there’s an important and very basic issue that the FAA’s so-called experts should be aware of but aren’t. And that is that as radio transmitting devices (eg an iPad) move away from some sort of radio receiving device (eg an airplane instrument) the strength of the signal reduces by (more or less – probably less in the case of being inside a plane) the square of the distance.
What does this mean? Well, let’s say the pilots’ iPads are on average 3 feet away from potentially sensitive instruments.
But the first row of passenger seats are maybe 21 feet away – seven times further. That means the strength of the signal of iPads in the first row of seats are potentially as little as 1/49th as strong as the signal from the iPads in the cockpit.
Now, the next row will be 24 ft away and so their signal will be something up to 64 times weaker.
By the time you get back to row 30, signals from there could be as little as 1/1000th as strong in the cockpit as the pilots’ devices.
There’s another factor here as well – the pilots’ cockpit is almost what is called a ‘Faraday cage’ – a volume of space that is surrounded by metal shielding, insulating it from any radio frequency interference (RFI) outside the Faraday cage. This is not exactly the case for a cockpit because wiring running into the cockpit could potentially also carry in some RFI with it.
So, electrical engineers can argue the numbers up or down or sideways, but the bottom line is that it is reasonable to say that even if every passenger on a plane had an electronic device powered on at the same time, it is probable that the RFI caused by this, in the cockpit, would be no greater than that already being caused by the two iPads in use by the pilots.
Whatever the actual number is, it is a completely unproven assumption to imply that passenger electronics would create 50 times as much RFI as the pilots’ own devices, and that they could potentially overwhelm the airplane avionics in new ways that the pilots’ own iPads could/would not.
Which brings us back to the question few people are asking and no-one is answering : If it is safe for the pilots to have their iPads on at all stages of a flight, why is it not safe for us?
Shame on the FAA for trying to trick us with pseudo-science.
There are a couple of additional strange reasons sometimes volunteered by self-appointed airline apologists and/or airline ‘experts’ as to why we’re not allowed to have our electronic devices on at times of the airlines’ choosing. They are both nonsense as well, but let’s look at them to understand why they are nonsense.
The Airlines Don’t Want Us to Be Distracted?
Some people say that the airlines don’t want us to be distracted by electronic devices. They want us to pay attention to the ‘safety briefing’ and be aware if the plane suddenly crashes.
But, if that was true, we’d not be allowed to read books, we’d not be allowed to go to sleep, we’d not be allowed to do anything at all except focus grimly on the safety briefing and the airplane’s hopefully safe flight.
This is clearly a nonsense excuse and one wonders who the people are who dreamed it up and offer it as if it is an official airline policy.
Concern About Objects Flying Around the Cabin
Other airline apologists say the reason we can’t have our electronic devices switched on is due to concern about them flying around the cabin if the plane should crash.
For sure, if the plane did crash, it would be nasty to have the iPad from three rows back suddenly fly into the back of one’s head. But – and here’s the but. We’re still allowed to have an iPad resting on our knee.
If you can explain to me how an iPad that is turned on is a more dangerous projectile than an iPad which is turned off, you’ll earn my greatest of respect.
Besides which, many hard covered books are heavier than any piece of electronics. (especially lightweight objects such as a small Nano iPod).
Would you prefer to be hit by a 3lb book or a 1.5lb iPad?
Again, the concern about objects flying around the cabin is another nonsense excuse invented after the fact by people who strangely seem to delight in accepting airline inconveniences and trying to foist them on us too.
Even More Excuses
Here’s an excellent article listing – and debunking – other excuses why the airlines should force us to turn our electronics off whenever it suits them.
What You Can Do to Help Bring a Measure of Convenience and Sense
Please go to the official White House website and sign the petition requesting the President and government to review and revise this prohibition.