Skip to main content

Pilot: The safety hitch of electronics on plane

By Les Abend, Special to CNN
November 1, 2013 -- Updated 2003 GMT (0403 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Les Abend: FAA relaxing rules on electronics in flight; is it safe?
  • He says electronic device signals don't interfere with flight navigation much anymore
  • He says FAA still bans cell phone calls; they risk overload of cellular systems on ground
  • During emergency instructions, airlines should ban use of earphones, Abend says

Editor's note: Les Abend is a 777 captain for a major airline with 29 years of flying experience. He is a senior contributor to Flying magazine, a worldwide publication in print for more than 75 years.

(CNN) -- As we begin our initial descent into JFK, I lightly press the tip of my index finger to the iPad screen. A brief jostle from a bout of turbulence results in the display of the wrong page. I grumble in silence but grin because I no longer have to wrestle through pages of paper charts and manuals. Instead, my office -- the cockpit of a 777 -- is mostly void of paper. Cool stuff.

My airline was the first to have the iPad approved for all phases of flight, takeoff and landing included. Almost a year has passed since that approval, a process that required six months of trials and training on each airplane type. And now the FAA is relaxing its rules on the use of personal electronic devices for passengers. It was inevitable. But is the new policy safe?

Most safety concerns focus on the effect of electronic interference to navigation systems. But in most of today's airliners, those concerns are minimal.

Navigation is no longer wholly dependent on signals sent from the ground from one of the VOR (Very High Omni Bearing Range) stations that dot the landscape around the world. Now GPS and sophisticated internal navigation systems integrate VOR signals into the calculations from onboard computers.

Les Abend
Les Abend

The design of aircraft prevents electronic signals from interfering -- not only signals from outside sources but ones generated from inside the airplane, such as engines and generators. In short, the chance of a passenger's Kindle interfering with an automated landing in low visibility conditions is minimal if not nonexistent.

Calls from cell phones are a separate story.

I'm gratified that the FAA acknowledges that usage as potential interference. For one thing, in some circumstances, cell phone frequencies are close to those of VOR stations. The FCC prohibits their usage for calls because of the risk of overloading cellular systems from airborne phones traveling at the Mach speeds of jets. If you want a dead phone for your business meeting after a three-hour flight, be certain to leave it on for the entire trip. The phone will attempt to lock on to almost every cell tower signal available en route.

So where is the potential safety threat?

It comes mostly from electronic devices creating a distraction. How so?

Takeoffs and landings are the most critical phases of any flight. In an abnormal situation, such as an aborted takeoff or an emergency landing that dictates a ground evacuation, time is of the essence. If you are focused on Angry Birds, will you have situational awareness? Will you understand the emergency instructions of the flight attendants in a highly stressful situation?

In-flight cell call? It'll cost you
FAA scolds passenger for iPad on plane

And for that matter, if your concentration is on composing an e-mail to the manager of your biggest account, are you really paying attention to the location of the emergency exits during the departure briefing?

You may say: How does the distraction of electronics differ from the distraction of The New York Times or People magazine? To which I would answer: They don't come with headphones. In any case, as it has never been done in the past, it would be an absurdity to regulate ink-on-paper reading now.

Although the FAA has granted approval for the use of your iPad during takeoff and landing, each airline must incorporate the policy into its own operations. Assuming airlines will relax their policies just for the sake of competing with their counterparts, I would advocate that they hold the line on electronic devices being used with headphones or anything else that could potentially block passengers from hearing and understanding emergency instructions from crew members.

One perk of this new electronic regulation? Some of the burden will be lifted from flight attendant duties. Although they still have to scold you about the seat back and tray table, the electronic device admonishment will be diminished.

But don't be having a phone conversation with the spouse or be texting a buddy. Cell phone calls are still prohibited when that entry door closes.

From my perspective as a flight crew member, I am pleased that our customers will have the opportunity to enjoy their electronic devices. But as cliched as it may sound, we are there for your safety. Regulation aside, I ask that you exercise discretion.

There is a method to our madness, even for Alec Baldwin.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Les Abend.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT