Technology Explained

Do Personal Electronic Devices Really Interfere With Avionics?

Danny Stieben 23-10-2013

You’re sitting in a plane, enjoying the view out of your window after finding a great deal for your flight Google Flights: Search & Find Cheap Air Tickets Using Google Read More , when the plane starts descending. A few moments later, the flight crew makes an announcement of the descent, and tells everyone to turn off their electronic devices for the remainder of the flight. Why aren’t we allowed to use our electronic devices during a flight? What allows us to now use them except for during takeoff and landing? Is there enough evidence to keep a ban on electronic devices during portions of flights?


What Started The Ban?


Image Credit: williamcho

The whole concept of banning electronic devices on flights arose from various studies which showed that personal electronic devices could interfere with the plane’s communications and navigation systems. This is because each electronic device emits electromagnetic radiation, and I mean every type of device. It doesn’t matter if the device uses electromagnetic waves for communication (such as cell phones) — it’ll still emit radiation. Yes, smartphones have “airplane mode” now, but even that doesn’t eliminate radiation. To prove this, you can try apps like Tawkon Tawkon: Measures & Tracks Your Android Phone Radiation Levels Read More which claim to be able to measure your phone’s radiation.

A favorite study of mine on this topic proved that a personal DVD player could alter the heading that was displayed in the cockpit. A 30 degree difference can make a major difference in the direction the airplane travels. If a device can cause such a disturbance, it’s scary to think about what else devices like that could do. A change in displayed heading may just be a navigational issue, but other issues could directly affect your safety.

Of course, this is a very simplified explanation of what could happen. If you’re interested, you may also check out a far more detailed and technical explanation.


But I Can Use My Devices Most Of The Time Now!

Technological advancements have been made on planes to shield the aircraft’s vitals from electromagnetic radiation, as well as on personal electronic devices to reduce the amount of radiation they emit. As such, most low-powered devices are now allowed to be used during the main portion of the flight. The emphasis on low-power is important, as that’s why airlines still advise you to put your smartphones in airplane mode and prohibit other devices such as remote-controlled toys.

Take-off and Landing


Image Credit: caribb

Smartphones and tablets are now much safer and can be used during most of the flight, thanks to the advancements made on both planes and personal electronic devices. However, they’re still prohibited during take-offs and landings. Why is this? There are two reasons:

  1. Statistically speaking, take-offs and landings are the most critical and issue-prone phases of a flight. It’s vitally important for your safety to reduce the potential for interference as much as possible during these times so that no issues occur.
  2. In the case of mobile phones, the FAA isn’t the only agency that has restrictions on their use during flight. The FCC also prohibits the use of mobile phones during flights so that it does not cause issues with the carriers’ network equipment on the ground. During take-off and landing, you’re close enough to the ground to connect to those networks, and they’re not built to work with phones going almost 500 miles per hour.
  3. Unrelated to electromagnetic radiation, any device or object that is out and about in the cabin during those times might suddenly fly around due to turbulences and cause bodily damage to yourself or other passengers. Of course, the bigger the electronic device, the more damage it can cause (or damage it can absorb).

Ultimately, the risks for the first and second points are extremely low, but the current stance of the FAA is to not take a chance. Then again, they’re currently receiving new reports and studies over this topic that may change their minds.

Flight Crew Training


Image Credit: Kevin_Morris

To not get any potential fines and to ensure safety, flight crew are trained to make sure that people follow the guidelines set by the airline. If the plane is still on the ground, they have the right to kick people out of the plane if they refuse to cooperate (Alec Baldwin was a prime example), or they can confiscate the device if the plane is in the air.


Final Thoughts

To answer the question in the title, it’s “Yes, but extremely unlikely.” Honestly, while there may not be quite enough reasons anymore to keep electronic devices turned off during certain parts of a flight, I still think it’s the best idea. When I’m in a metal tube in the sky going several hundred miles per hour, I’d prefer to be as safe as possible. Plus, since you can use those electronic devices during most of the flight, it won’t hurt to turn them off for approximately a combined hour. You can still get all the work done that you need to do if you’re well prepared for travel The Essential Smartphone Apps and Gear to Keep Productive When Traveling I just got back from a tour of California's beautiful Sonoma County, internationally known for its extraordinary wines and verdant, rolling hills. Unfortunately, with a deadline looming and no laptop available, the task of composing... Read More .

What do you think about the partial bans on electronic devices during flights? Let us know in the comments!

Intro Image Credit: caribb

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  1. John
    October 26, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    For many years in the UK we had signs to turn off phones as they might interfere with medical equipment. Then the NHS started renting out hospital roof space to RACAL Vodaphone to fit cell masts! Your phone has 10mW of power, the mast is 32 Watts power ....
    I've been in electronics for 35 years. All medical grade and aviation electronics are virtually bomb proof to external interference. The military stuff is literally bomb proof due to several layers of EM sheilding. Your mobile phone / blutooth / Wifi is not now, nor ever will be, powerful enough to interfere with anything. These low power devices all work because of the incredible quality of the fabulous recievers and antenna systems developed by Nokia and others. And, no, it won't fry your brain either - you need a 500 Watt microwave oven to do that - and you have to take your head off first.

  2. Tom W
    October 24, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    I've flown a handful of times, and I've always followed the instructions to turn off my phone. However, no-one has ever checked to ensure I've complied. It seems to me (and I've seen this argument online many times) that they don't seem to care all that much, so long as the device isn't in anyone's hand. If there was any real danger, they would have a device to monitor airwaves, radiation, etc. that they can sweep the aisles with and ensure complete compliance.

  3. Alejandro R
    October 24, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    It's all fine, but I get really frustrated when I see videos of landings and take-offs from pilots!

  4. MartynL
    October 24, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    The very first paragraph of this article stopped me from reading any further. You need a good (decent?) spell checker and also need to learn the difference between ascent (The act or process of rising or going upward) and descent (an act of moving downwards, dropping, or falling. "the plane had gone into a steep descent". synonyms: going down, coming down)

  5. Michael
    October 24, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    I fully agree that devices should be turned off completely as instructed for the safety of all aboard, and on the ground. It's bad enough that aircraft are already prone to natural failures and human oversights in maintenance. Despite technological advances in RF shielding and device low power modes, there could be a flaw somewhere which hasn't been identified. All it takes is one crank to write a virus app that makes a device broadcast interference, and then what? Are we that selfish or desperate to take such a chance just to play a game, or add a few more entries on a spreadsheet, or sneak that last text or phone call before out of cell range?
    Let's not force the odds of tragedy beyond what they already are!

    • Jeremie
      September 29, 2019 at 11:36 pm

      None of what you said here could ever happen. You're obviously completely ignorant when it comes to technology and how anything works.

  6. jkendal
    October 24, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    If an airline doesn't want you to have your device turned on during takeoff and landing, then you should be respectful and turn it off, irregardless of the reason. If you buy a ticket to travel on one of their planes, you agree to follow their rules. The problem with most people today is they think rules shouldn't apply (and therefore don't have to be obeyed) if they don't make sense. They may not make sense TO YOU - maybe the airlines want an atmosphere where it's easier to get your attention during takeoff and landing if they need to. If you owned a store and you didn't want persons with a conceal carry license to walk in with a firearm, even though it may be legal for them to do so, wouldn't you want them to respect that, irregardless of your reason?

    • Yawk
      October 24, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      Baf example on storer becayse if you open a store you basically open your business up to the freedom of the public. You do not have the right to stop anyone from coming in as long as they are a law abiding citizen at the momen.

    • jkendal
      October 24, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      I said that even though someone may have the right to enter your store with a concealed firearm, you would still want them to respect your wishes (most CCL holders would anyway). You have the right to ask them to leave if they don't and you also have the right to call the police and have them removed if they don't. If you doubt this, ask any policeman who's ever been called to a restaurant to escort someone out that violated the owner's "no shirt, no shoes, no service" rule - even if the person wasn't violating any law. The logic of my argument still stands.

  7. Jeff Schallenberg
    October 24, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Here is a dissenting view:

  8. bud
    October 24, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Flight crew wants full attention for take off and landing. not avionic disruption.

  9. Martin F
    October 24, 2013 at 11:13 am

    I have been working in electronics for many years, and have these comments:
    1] Yes all electronics emit radiation
    2] #1 is a widely known problem and avionics manufacturers design their equipment to be immune to this
    3] If there were a problem we'd have seen more crashes by now
    4] If there were a problem terrorists would have used this by now

    The truth (so I have heard) of turning off electronics is so that the passengers are forced to focus on the task of emergency procedures.

    Case-in-point: There are new cock-pit management tools including using iPad for navigation and airport charts. If the pilots can use devices then...

    This is akin to a cell phone causing gas pumps to explode. NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. The biggest single cause of explosions are static discharges - typically caused by those who get back into the car while pumping, then forget to discharge before touching the pump.

    • Danny S
      October 31, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      Good point. I definitely agree with the focus on emergency procedures -- same as with my "it can fly around in the cabin" point, the issues can be indirect of the use of the devices.

  10. Hartono S
    October 24, 2013 at 9:36 am

    i think safety first...eventhough, i never go by plane before :P

  11. John
    October 24, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Opinionated BS. I expected something a little more factual.

    • Danny S
      October 31, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      I think it's a healthy mix of fact and opinion, but to each his own.

  12. Code pippen
    October 24, 2013 at 6:53 am

    I do agree with you on this.

  13. Christian Hernandez
    October 23, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    I always wanted to know. And just some weeks ago I saw this