Your iPod (Most Likely) Won’t Bring Down the Plane

The FAA is finally letting us keep our electronic devices turned on during takeoff. So…why couldn’t we do it before?

For years, airlines have spooked us with the idea that if we furtively leave our iPod switched on as our plane begins its final approach, the signal might somehow send all the instruments on the flight deck spinning crazily. Flight attendants incessantly remind us. Signs and manuals forbid it.

Now the Federal Aviation Administration is changing its tune. The administration announced on Wednesday new rules that allow the use of personal electronic devices during the entirety of a flight—from gate to gate. Our longstanding fear, it seems, turns out to be about as valid as the death ray deployed by Buck Rogers in comic strips.

Why switch it up now? Did the FAA know all along that its rule was hokum?

The really strange thing about the timing of this change is that—if you accept the logic of the previous regime—the supposed vulnerability of an airliner to electronic interference is actually far greater than it has ever been.

Indeed, the latest, like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or the giant Airbus A380, are densely packed with electronics controlling: everything from the performance of the engines to the darkening of the cabin windows. Flight deck displays look like the TV department of an electronics store. When the pilot takes over from the automated flight control system, (which is rarely), his commands go to the control surfaces by electronic signals, not by hand. Meanwhile, every second the airplane is sending a steady stream of signals back to Earth, giving a picture of how vital systems are working—for example, whether a spare part should be ready at the arrival gate.

At the other extreme, you have some real old clunkers still flying with U.S. carriers like the MD-80, where pilot input to the controls is direct and manual through power-assisted cables. Electronically, that machine is the equivalent of an early transistor radio. And across the U.S. fleets there are many stages of technical sophistication between these two extremes.

So now we are being asked by the FAA to believe that whatever the age of the airline fleets there is absolutely no chance of an airplane falling out of the sky because of electronic interference. And never was.

Maybe the truth lies in something the FAA boss Michael Huerta said in announcing the change—that the airlines welcomed the change to “enhance the customer experience.” Well, that’s for sure…the “customer experience” can use some enhancing. Anything, for example, to take our minds off the execrable “dining experience.”

But wait. Huerta did not manage entirely to dispel the old phantom of electronic interference. “In some instances of low visibility,” he said, “one percent of flights, some landing systems may not be proven to tolerate the interference.”

Just where those “landing systems” are he didn’t say, but the phrasing of this caveat does not radiate a confident grasp of science.

At least the new rules don’t allow for something that would really wreck the experience: cell phone talk. The FAA doesn’t control that; the Federal Communications Commission does, and the complexity of the cellphone system makes it a much tougher nut to crack.