Use Of Gadgetry In Flight Under Review

December 7, 2012
1 min read

HERE’S A SCENARIO that’s bound to give frequent flyers pause for thought. Are the many gadgets powered down at altitude really all that dangerous?

If airline paranoia is anything to go by, planes should be falling out of the sky every time Johnny or Joan turn on a Playstation portable, Kindle or God forbid, even a smartphone during take-off or landing.

Thankfully, post air-crash analysis has yet to demonstrate this apocalyptic scenario of gadget-based in-flight doom. Either way, the big question in my mind is ‘why?’ Surely I’m not the only one who’s ever wondered if an accidentally switched-on gizmo was going to lead to air travel carnage?

Now the US Federal Aviation Administration (that’s the FAA, those folks who for years have told cabin crews to hassle you and I into turning off widgets during take-off and landings), is reviewing the use of tech in flight.

Things kicked into high gear as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski wrote a carefully worded letter to the FAA that calls on them to “enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices.” (Guess he was pissed at having to forgoe a round of Angry Birds at altitude…).

Now, I’m a big fan of any opportunity to use tech whenever I can, but funnily enough, I’m also not a huge fan of not being killed in plane crashes. But still, if the FCC and FAA are looking at this, then there must be something to it.

Genachowski is pretty convinced, and even went as far to say that: “This review comes at a time of tremendous innovation, as mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives.” He even goes on to say that “they empower people to stay informed and connected with friends and family, and they enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost US competitiveness.”

Strong stuff. Thankfully, even though Genachowski and the FAA are confident that gadgets and planes are unlikely to be a fatal combo, they’ve sensibly decided not to allow flyers to make phone calls in flight. Being stuck next to some idiot on the bus or train as they shout inanities down the phone to their partners may be incredibly annoying, but on a long haul flight it’d probably be enough to drive normally reasonable people to commit acts of violence. PAT PILCHER

Pat has been talking about tech on TV, radio and print for over 20 years, having served time as a TV tech guy and currently penning reviews for Witchdoctor. He loves nothing more than rolling his sleeves up and playing with shiny gadgets.


  1. There are many threats to Air transport flights but the good news for the air traveller is 99.99% have been identified and mitigated. ‘Gadgets’ is just one of them and can be broken into two individual concerns. The first is the transmissions emitting from a device corrupting the normal function of aircraft systems, i.e. the system that manages an instrument approach which in layman terms, allows the aircraft to transition from the sky to the ground while in cloud (no visibility) in a controlled and safe manner. Obviously the aircraft arriving at the thresh hold and not the grassy knoll 1km short of it is the desired outcome. Luckily if an approach is corrupted, we are trained to recognize it with cross checking during the approach so a gadget causing a fatal crash is VERY much reduced, but nevertheless it would be very inconvenient to have to abandon the approach as the traveller will be late, there is an increased work load on the crew, and it costs a lot of money. So follow instructions of the airline with respect to the use of electronic devices.

    The second more serious threat IMO is the rechargeable batteries found in all the devices that could have a thermal runaway and fire. There have been hull losses around the world due to this and again we are trained to deal with inflight fires caused by batteries. We have to dispatch with a minimum quantity of available water that would be used to extinguish a battery fire. The key to putting out a battery fire is reducing the temperature and normal gas extinguishers won’t do this. I’d prefer the device was carried on the person rather than in the cargo hold as we have more control of the fire if it was to start in the overhead locker. So again the treat has been mitigated to an acceptable level and if I were you, keeping the device with you and not in the cargo hold will mitigate the risk even further. There is BTW extinguishers in the cargo hold and the hold lining is resistant to fire and heat for about 20-30mins enough to land at the nearest airport.

    You still have a far higher chance of dying on the road than in an Air transport category aircraft. Food for thought!

  2. Totally agree – I hadn’t even begun to cover off the battery issue, it is also an issue for international freight companies for the same reason

  3. “I’m also not a huge fan of not being killed in plane crashes. ”

    One too many ‘nots’ ?

    Has there ever been a record of an electronic gadget downing a plane ?

    Or a cellphone blowing up a gas station ?

  4. I investigated this when I was a correspondent at TVNZ and when I spoke to CAA they said that yes there has been cases where a poorly designed radio controlled car controller accidentally left on in the cargo hold affected flight instruments, it was a very close call… evidentially a dirty RF signal (one that is not precisely tuned) that you’d typically get with a radio controlled toy is the worst for this sort of thing.

  5. I guess if I was stuck at LAX (my last trip to the US saw me stuck there for 8 hours!!!) I’d set my laptop battery on fire just to break the monotony

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