Why smartphones are now safe for airplanes

06 Nov 2013

As you’ve no doubt heard, the US Federal Aviation Administration has relaxed its rules regarding the use of electronic devices during takeoff and landing. Which means you can leave on your smartphone or tablet or Kindle or game console or whatever from gate to gate.

At least you can in the US, once airlines implement the policy, although other countries are likely to follow suit in due course. (In Asia, South Korea looks to be among the first to do so, according to the Korea Times.)

For those wondering the obvious question – “Why is it suddenly safe to use them now?” – the answer is pretty simple: the rule was established in 1966 and it took until now for the FAA to catch up with modern technology.

Gizmag reports:

In the ‘60s, the worry wasn't about laptops and mobile phones, but radio transceivers, which a study panel concluded could dangerously interfere with VHF Omni Range navigation systems and similar navigation aids. This was about as far as it went in the days when airliners were mostly controlled by hydraulic systems or step motors, but when the first fly-by-wire systems came online, interference was once again front and center and the regulations became stricter.

Though later technological advances made navigation and flight control systems less vulnerable, the electronic ecology of handheld devices expanded with the invention of mobile phones, portable computers, and their descendants. Worse, not every airline or airport is fully modern and older planes and navigation systems are often still vulnerable. This is one of the reasons why the new relaxation of the regulations depends in the end on each airline’s approval and implementation.

So essentially it’s a classic case of regulations (and, to be fair, airlines) being woefully behind the times.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can make phone calls or surf the web – not unless there’s an inflight Wi-Fi service for that, anyway. Which may be as well, since many inflight Wi-Fi services currently tend to be pricey and slow (depending on how many people try to use it), though that is expected to change over the next couple of years.

Personally, I’m waiting for the FAA to finally relax an even dumber rule: the one that bans bottled drinks from the cabin. Luckily, that one might not last too much longer either.

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