Are Electronics in Flight Dangerous?

I flew Alaska Airlines for the first time this week, and something stuck out as odd to me on both legs.

The flight attendants were very specific in their safety instructions that we needed to power off all our electronic devices for takeoff and that airplane mode did not count.

In other words, don’t just turn off the receivers, turn off the device.

There’s a long-standing debate about whether cell receivers can disrupt a plane’s systems, one recently revived by Arianna Huffington.

Electronics In Flight — Danger Or Distraction? – Slashdot

Dating back to the Walkman days, I’ve always wondered what about portable electronics could harm an airplane?

The very specific insistence on Alaska that airplane mode wasn’t good enough reminded me of that and of the what-exactly-is-airplane-mode problems early adopters like Jeff Nolan (@jeffnolan) had in the nascent iPhone era.

I wonder if the average iPx device user even knows how to power off the device, which would create problems.

Does anyone know? Or do you think they just make it specific JIC?




  1. If having any electronic device “on” could have any effect whatsoever on a plane then we wouldn’t be allowed to bring them on the plane in the first place. The fact that we can bring them on the plane and use them at altitude is all the proof you need that they’re safe.

    BUT FAA regs say that the electronics need to be off for taxi, takeoff and landing. The flight attendants are required to make that announcement and check that everyone has complied. I believe I read somewhere that they can individually be fined if someone doesn’t comply and they fail to take action.

  2. Part of the issue is that there are so many gadgets being released so often and possibly (probably) some are a cheapo knockoff that hasn’t/wouldn’t pass different government emissions tests based on frequency and/or power output. As for the takeoff/landing times, these are the critical times for a flight when there is much more chance of something going wrong or being more serious when it does go wrong.

    If people are playing with a gadget it is a lot easier to enforce a ‘turn it off’ policy than start an argument between an attendent and a passenger about whether the machine is in the correct mode.

  3. I’m not debating the selfishness exhibited by Huffington and others who refuse to comply with the policies in place for everyone’s good. Not even close.

    I’ve always been genuinely curious about it, not being inclined to that type of electrical engineering.

  4. Good point, the inconsistency of when you can use electronic devices is puzzling, although as Gary points out above, the timing indicates an elevated risk during takeoff/landing.

    And yes, FAs are required to announce and enforce the rules. It sucks for them, as do many facets of being responsible for safety on an airplane.

  5. I think it’s the FAA being cautious. Either way, people must comply with cabin crew instructions. If she’s prepared to endure the embarrassment of still using a Blackberry though, perhaps she could be allowed continue.

  6. Probably, I just wanted to know if anyone knew the real science, if any, behind it. I did snicker a bit, thinking of Huffington rocking a BlackBerry, for shame!

  7. I’m on a plane multiple times a month and this change in safety instructions to power off instead of just putting the device in airplane mode started in the last few months. I’ve now heard the updated instructions on Hawaii Airlines, Frontier and United.

  8. Bit of a bummer. I’m still questioning what percentage of device owners (especially iPx ones) even know how to do that. Just seems like something that would have come up in the early days of the iPod, if it were a major issue. Although again, how many people know how to power down an older iPod?

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