Why Are We Still Powering Down All Electronic Devices on Airliners?

There’s no real reason for it.

A Twitter/Google+ friend of mine, Chris, linked to an article on the New York Times website today, “Fliers Still Must Turn Off Devices, but It’s Not Clear Why.” His comment on Google+ pretty much echoed my sentiments:

I do all my book reading on an iPad, and it’s annoying that I can’t read during the beginning and end of a flight, likely for no legitimate reason.

This blog post takes a logical look at the practice and the regulations behind it.

What the FAA Says

In most instances, when an airline flight crew tells you to turn off portable electronic devices — usually on takeoff and landing — they make a reference to FAA regulations. But exactly what are the regulations?

Fortunately, we can read them for ourselves. Indeed, the Times article links to the actual Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) governing portable electronic devices on aircraft, 121.306. Here it is in its entirety:

121.306 Portable electronic devices.

(a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, no person may operate, nor may any operator or pilot in command of an aircraft allow the operation of, any portable electronic device on any U.S.-registered civil aircraft operating under this part.

(b) Paragraph (a) of this section does not apply to—

(1) Portable voice recorders;

(2) Hearing aids;

(3) Heart pacemakers;

(4) Electric shavers; or

(5) Any other portable electronic device that the part 119 certificate holder has determined will not cause interference with the navigation or communication system of the aircraft on which it is to be used.

(c) The determination required by paragraph (b)(5) of this section shall be made by that part 119 certificate holder operating the particular device to be used.

So what this is saying is that you can’t operate any portable electronic device that the aircraft operator — the airline, in this case — says you can’t. (Read carefully; a is the rule and b is the loophole.) You can, however, always operate portable voice recorders, hearing aids, heart pacemakers (good thing!), and electric shavers (?).

So is the FAA saying you can’t operate an iPad (or any other electronic device) on a flight? No. It’s the airline that says you can’t.

Interference with Navigation or Communication Systems

In reading this carefully, you might assume that the airline has determined that devices such as an iPad may cause interference with navigation or communication systems. After all, that’s the only reason the FAA offers them the authority to require these devices to be powered down.

But as the Times piece points out, a 2006 study by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics found no evidence that these devices can or can’t interfere. Sounds to me like someone was avoiding responsibility for making a decision.

In the meantime, many portable electronic devices, including iPads, Kindles, and smart phones have “airplane mode” settings that prevent them from sending or receiving radio signals. If this is truly the case, it should be impossible for these devices to interfere with navigation or communication systems when in airplane mode. And if all you want to do with your device is read a downloaded book or play with an app that doesn’t require Internet access, there should be no reason why you couldn’t do so.

And can someone really make the argument that an electronic device in airplane mode emits more radio interference than a pacemaker or electric shaver?

And what about the airlines that now offer wi-fi connectivity during the flight? You can’t have your device in airplane mode to take advantage of that service. Surely that says something about the possibility of radio interference: there is none. Evidently, if you’re paying the airline to use their wi-fi, it’s okay.

What’s So Special about Takeoff and Landing?

Of course, since you are allowed to use these devices during the cruise portion of the flight, that begs the question: What’s so special about takeoff and landing?

As a pilot, I can assure you that the pilot’s workload is heavier during the takeoff and landing portions of the flight. There’s more precise flying involved as well as more communication with air traffic control (ATC) and a greater need to watch out for and avoid other aircraft.

But in an airliner, the pilots are locked in the cockpit up front, with very little possibility of distractions from the plane full of seat-belted passengers behind them — even if some of them are busy reading the latest suspense thriller or playing an intense game of Angry Birds.

Are the aircraft’s electronics working harder? I don’t think so.

Are they more susceptible to interference? I can’t see how they could be.

So unless I’m wrong on any of these points, I can’t see why the airlines claim that, for safety reasons, these devices need to be powered off during takeoff and landing.

It’s a Control Issue

I have my own theory on why airlines force you to power down your devices during takeoff and landing: They don’t want their flight attendants competing with electronic devices for your attention.

By telling you to stow all this stuff, there’s less of a chance of you missing an important announcement or instruction. Theoretically, if the aircraft encountered a problem and they needed to instruct passengers on what they should do, they might find it easier to get and keep your attention if you weren’t reading an ebook or listening to your iPod or playing Angry Birds. Theoretically. But there are two arguments against this, too:

  • You can get just as absorbed in a printed book (or maybe even that damn SkyMall catalog) as you could in an ebook.
  • If something were amiss, the actual flight/landing conditions and/or other screaming/praying/seatback-jumping passengers would likely get your attention.

But let’s face it: airlines want to boss you around. They want to make sure you follow their rules. So they play the “safety” card. They tell you their policies are for your safety. And they they throw around phrases like “FAA Regulations” to make it all seem like they’re just following someone else’s rules. But as we’ve seen, they have the authority to make the rule, so it all comes back to them.

And that’s the way they like it.

How Cell Phones Fit Into This Discussion

Cell phone use is a completely different issue. In the U.S., it isn’t the FAA that prohibits cell phone use on airborne aircraft — it’s the FCC. You can find the complete rule on that in FCC regulation 22.925, which states (in part):

22.925   Prohibition on airborne operation of cellular telephones.

Cellular telephones installed in or carried aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft must not be operated while such aircraft are airborne (not touching the ground). When any aircraft leaves the ground, all cellular telephones on board that aircraft must be turned off.

There are reasons for this, but an analysis of whether or not they’re valid is beyond the scope of this discussion.

I just want to be able to read books on my iPad from the moment I settle into my airliner seat to the moment I leave it.

Lesson Learned: Don’t Update an iOS Device on the Day the Update is Released

I learned it the hard way — and won’t forget.

Yesterday, I spent about 3 hours in an Apple Store. It was not pleasant.

It all started when, in preparation to update my iPhone and iPad 2 to iOS 5, I synced my two iOS devices. I got an error message. Thinking that was probably not a good thing before doing an OS update, I made an appointment at the local Apple Store — which is walking distance from our Phoenix place — with an iOS Genius. An hour later, I walked over with my iPhone, iPad, and syncing computer, a MacBook Pro.

The “genius” (and this guy definitely deserves his title put in quotes) looked at the situation and told me that because the error message appeared on my Mac and not on my iOS device, he couldn’t help me. But he could make an appointment for me later that day.

If there’s every a way to piss me off, it’s to tell me I’ve wasted my time and need to come back later in the day to waste more time. I gave him a lot of grief, which he deserved. It gave me a really good idea about the quality of management at the Biltmore Apple Store: it sucks. It was the first time I’d ever left the store angry, without my problem resolved.

I went back to my office and started troubleshooting on my own. That’d when the iOS 5 update was released. Since the problem had been resolved on my iPhone, I figured I’d update that. Things went smoothly — on our fast Internet connection, I was able to get the download in less than 15 minutes. But the upgrade kept failing.

So I showed up at the Apple Store again for my second appointment of the day. This time, they put me with a Mac expert. He listened to my problems, looked at his watch, and told me he had to go to lunch in 8 minutes.

What was I saying about Biltmore Apple Store management? Oh yeah. It sucks.

He started out by using Software Update to look for updates. I’d done that first thing in the morning and there weren’t any. But now there was — Mac OS X 10.7.2 — making me look like an idiot. He began the install and while it was working, left for lunch.

Another genius stepped up to fill his spot. I told her that since the process would take some time, she should help someone else. I’d try to resolve it on my own and let her know how I did.

I got the Mac OS update done and then tried again to update my iPhone. No joy. By this point, everyone was tweeting about server problems. I didn’t think this was server related, but when I realized that some kind of verification was going on and that’s where it was failing, I agreed that was the issue. I kept trying.

Connect to iTunesMy phone became “bricked” — completely unusable — with a “Connect to iTunes” image after the fifth try.

Now a small seed of panic began growing inside me. My iPhone is my only phone. It’s for personal and business use. It’s the only way I can be contacted by voice communication.

After trying a few more times, I talked to the new genius they’d assigned to me. (I hadn’t moved from my stool at the Genius Bar.) He tried updating from another computer. When that failed twice, he took it in the back of the store somewhere.

I sat with my laptop and iPad, researching possible solutions on the Web and Twitter.

After 20 minutes, he returned with my phone and some bad news: he wanted to replace my phone.

Now if he was offering to replace it with a factory new iPhone 4, never touched by human hands since leaving China, I would have gone for it. But he was offering a reconditioned phone. And I have terrible luck with previously owned devices. The idea of using a phone that once belonged to someone else — who may have dropped it in the toilet for all I knew — really wigged me out. I told him I’d keep trying.

He set me up with an Ethernet connection to the Internet and a power cord.

And I did. I kept trying updates and failing. While that was going on, I kept searching for troubleshooting tips. @singhpanther on Twitter suggested Lifehacker. I found “How Do I Fix My Bricked iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch?” and worked my way through the instructions, including the DFU mode stuff. I kept trying updates…and failing.

All the while, people kept coming in with iPhone 4s showing the same “Connect to iTunes” icon I had. I counted about a dozen of these people, all looking lost and bewildered.

Finally, after spending a total of about two hours on that damn Genius Bar stool, it worked. My phone was recovered and working properly with iOS 5.

I don’t think it’s anything special that I did. I think I just managed to squeeze into the server queue at the right time for success.

By that time, the lunching genius was back at his place. I showed him my phone. “Got it working, ” I said.

“Of course,” he said smugly. “What do you think we were doing back there?”

You were doing nothing that worked, I felt like snapping back to him. After all, they hadn’t fixed it. They wanted to replace it and put it back on iOS 4.2. It was my perseverance and refusal to let them take the phone away that had resulted in success.

But as I age, I’m realizing that it just isn’t worth arguing with smug assholes like him. So I just got up off the stool and left.

What was I saying about the management of the Biltmore Apple Store? Oh, yeah. It sucks.

The lesson I learned from all this is this:

With millions of iPhones and iPads out in the world and a rabid user base that’s willing to wait overnight in long lines for new devices, it’s not a good idea to update iOS on the first day of its release. Wait a day or two — it’ll all go more smoothly.

And yes, iOS 5 is worth the wait.

Just Say NO to Flash

Are you as frustrated as I am about Web sites relying on Flash?

I need to share a little rant here.

Flash LogoUntil recently, I never realized how many Web sites are built around Flash. I’m not talking about sites that include Flash animations here and there. I’m talking about sites completely contained in a Flash animation.

Like this monstrosity: http://www.stingraysushi.com/

Stingray Sushi is a restaurant. Its site includes a menu, which can only be viewed in that Flash animation.

Now I don’t know about you, but sometimes I look for a restaurant when I’m on the go. I’ll whip out my iPhone or iPad, open the Maps app, and search for restaurant. Or I’ll use the Safari browser to Google a specific restaurant. Either way, my goal is to see the Home page for the restaurant so I can learn more about it and the food it serves before I drive/walk over. To do that, I need to be able to see the Home page or, at least, a menu.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I’ll never be able to see the Home page for Stingray Sushi on my iPhone or iPad.

Now you might want to blame Apple for this. After all, it’s Apple that decided that it won’t support Flash.

But I blame the Web developer. Apple mobile devices, including the iPhone and iPad, have been available for nearly four years. Apple is currently the fourth largest seller of mobile phones, with millions of iPhones out in the wild. Apple is also the top seller of tablet computers, with millions of iPads out in the wild. Developers who continue to base entire sites on Flash are basically thumbing their noses at iPhone/iPad users, telling them that they simply aren’t important enough to view the oh-so-valuable Flash content on their Web sites.

I have two words for these developers, and they’re not “thank you.”

So when I reach a site I can’t view on my device — whatever that device is — do you think I’ll visit that business?

Do you think that I’m interested in rewarding a business for the frustration their Flash-based site has generated by actually buying something there?

There are alternatives to Flash. Many alternatives. HTML 5 is one of them. But apparently, Web developers would rather lean on a crutch like Flash than move forward with new, more compatible technology.

Why does this continue to be an issue?

Just say no to Flash.

Banking by Phone [App]

Almost full-service banking by smart phone.

I’ve been doing 95% my banking online for the past five to eight years. I seldom write any checks and never visit the bank and wait on line for a teller. Instead, I have direct deposit from some of my publishers and use online bill pay (through my bank’s Web site) and online bill paying features in Quicken to make payments. When I receive money by check, I deposit at an ATM. When I need to pay someone with a check — which is more and more seldom these days — I pull out one of the ones leftover from my original check stock, blow the dust off, and write one.

Some Words about Bank of America

I do all of my banking with Bank of America. Before you start bashing them, let me explain why. Our local branch in Wickenburg was, until recently, extraordinarily helpful. We had no trouble opening accounts, getting loans, refinancing our home, getting a home equity line of credit, etc. The staff knew us by name and always helped us immediately with any problems. It just made sense to put everything in one bank.

Since then, Bank of America has done its part to seriously piss me off — as they piss off everyone else they come in contact with. The local branch service completely failed to help us with a very serious problem, actually bringing me to tears in the branch location. I was forced to work with the monster that is Bank of America’s loan department and, although I resolved the situation satisfactorily, I have not been back to the branch since. I also have serious fears that the same problem will arise again and it has forced me to take a completely different approach on my personal finances. But that’s another story.

In general, my banking with Bank of America works pretty well. Between my husband and I, we have many accounts: 3 personal checking, 2 business checking, 2 credit cards, 2 mortgages, 1 home equity line of credit, and a 1 “recreational vehicle” (helicopter) loan. To start moving these accounts to another bank just because Bank of America isn’t what it used to be would be a time-consuming exercise in frustration. I have better ways to spend time frustrating myself.

What I do like about Bank of America’s Web access is that I can access all of my accounts from one login screen. This makes it really easy to manage my accounts. And it works with Quicken for free (although they do charge for QuickBooks access, which is why I don’t use QuickBooks). Even bill pay is free. And checking, as long as I use my debit card at least once a month. So my banking costs are quite low and access is quite convenient. How can I complain?

Point is: please don’t fill up the comments with suggestions on a better bank. I’m not interested in switching.

The Bank of America App

Recently, I downloaded the Bank of America iPhone App. It sat on my phone for at least a few weeks before I decided to give it a try. It has limited functionality, but it does make it relatively easy to check account balances, pay bills (to known payees), and transfer money using the app.

BofA AppThe app is pretty straightforward. You open it and then log in using the same kind of Site Key protection that’s on the Web version of online banking. You then choose from three options:

  • Accounts displays all your accounts and their balances. Clicking an account shows transactions in that account. Clicking a transaction shows transaction details.
  • Bill Pay & E-Bills gives you access to the bill pay feature. You can make a single payment, view (an cancel, but not change) outgoing payments, and view unpaid e-bills (if you have any).
  • Transfer Funds lets you transfer money between your accounts now, schedule a transfer between your accounts for later, or transfer to another person (if you have this feature set up).

Although the app’s limited functionality makes it impossible to use without occasional Web access — for example, you can’t set up a payee in the app; you must do that on the Web site or from within Quicken — it is, in general, quicker to use than the Web site — especially if you suffer from painfully slow Internet connections, as I do at home in Wickenburg. The phone has fewer options, so it takes fewer clicks (or taps) to get to the feature you need. Unfortunately, that feature doesn’t appear immediately. Worse yet, when you go back, there’s no indication that the app is doing anything — some kind of wait cursor or Internet access indicator would really help. But I still think it’s quicker and easier to use than the Web site for the few features it does support.

Point in case: today I paid my mechanic for some work he did on my helicopter. I was able to do this while eating breakfast, without firing up a computer. Launch the app, log in, and get right to the payment page. Enter an amount, send it, confirm it, and I’m done. It took about a minute.

And I can do this from anywhere I have a 3G phone signal. (I have Verizon, so that’s nearly everywhere I go.)

Conclusion

While I’m certain this isn’t the best banking app out there, it is the one that my bank offers, so it’s the only one I’ve experienced. If this is an indication of what’s to come, I’m very glad. The quicker and easier banking tasks are, the less time I have to spend doing them — or dealing with the bank’s staff.

Now that I’ve tried it, I’ll likely be using it more often.

What do you think? Do you use an app for your banking needs? If so, share your experiences in the comments.

Outraged about Apple Tracking Your Every Move? Read This.

Once again, mainstream media, fed by tech journalists who should know better, get half the facts wrong and blow the other half out of proportion.

The big tech news these days is the story about Apple’s iDevices, including iPhone and iPad, “secretly” logging location information as you go about your daily business. The information is stored on your iDevice and then backed up to your computer when you sync — just like all the other information on your iDevice. (That’s what a backup does: it makes a copy so you have in case data is lost.) The media grabbed this one and ran with it, making a big deal about privacy concerns and even going so far as to suggest that this data is somehow getting back to Apple, which might be using it for some dark, secret purpose. The “discoverers” of this plot even worked up a program that can extract this data from your backup and plot it on a map. Just to show how thorough this information is, tech journalists were quick to seize it and plot their own movements.

Makes you angry, huh? To think that some big corporation is tracking your every move?

To hear interviewees on the radio, read blog posts and news stories, and read the comments left on blog posts, you’d think the government should be knocking down Apple’s doors and grabbing every storage device in sight to snatch this oh-so-valuable information from them. The media is outraged and they’ve made the public outraged, too.

Don’t Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story

There’s just one problem: The story, as reported by most media outlets and bloggers, isn’t entirely true.

Sure, iOS does log location information in a “hidden” file that’s synced to your computer when you back up your device. And sure, that hidden file isn’t encrypted (although it is hidden). But it doesn’t go anywhere else — certainly not to Apple. As was pointed out by someone actually knowledgeable about the situation in an NPR interview I heard yesterday (sorry; can’t find link), the state of California has laws governing the gathering and use of this information. It would be very stupid for Apple to violate this law.

(And do you honestly think that Apple devices are the only ones logging this kind of information?)

You Said they Could!

Guess what? In the iPhone Software License Agreement users agree to give Apple permission to gather this information:

(b) Location Data. Apple and its partners and licensees may provide certain services through your iPhone that rely upon location information. To provide and improve these services, where available, Apple and its partners and licensees may transmit, collect, maintain, process and use your location data, including the real-time geographic location of your iPhone, and location search queries. The location data and queries collected by Apple are collected in a form that does not personally identify you and may be used by Apple and its partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. By using any location-based services on your iPhone, you agree and consent to Apple’s and its partners’ and licensees’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing and use of your location data and queries to provide and improve such products and services. You may withdraw this consent at any time by going to the Location Services setting on your iPhone and either turning off the global Location Services setting or turning off the individual location settings of each location-aware application on your iPhone. Not using these location features will not impact the non location-based functionality of your iPhone. When using third party applications or services on the iPhone that use or provide location data, you are subject to and should review such third party’s terms and privacy policy on use of location data by such third party applications or services.

Credit Where Credit is Due

So what’s the real deal? You could probably learn more about the facts by reading a blog post written by someone who discovered this back in 2010. Yes, this isn’t a new discovery. It was uncovered not long after the release of iOS 4. It was presented at the Paraben Forensics Innovation Conference in Salt Lake City in November 2010. It was covered in an Apress book called iOS Forensic Analysis that was released in December 2010. It was published in a paper in January 2011; the same month it was presented at the 2011 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

In other words, this isn’t news. Evidently, the “discoverer” who has the most media connections and can shout the loudest gets all the credit.

What’s the Big Deal?

And how can so many people be so outraged about this? It’s absurd in a time when many well-connected iPhone users — and others — are publicly broadcasting their location day in and day out by check-ins on Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook, and countless other sites.

The irony of the outrage was best summed up in a tweet that came down my Twitter stream from Mike_FTW yesterday:

7:04: Check-in from bathroom. 7:38: Check-in from café. 8:15: Check-in from bus stop. (Mayor!) 8:35: Bitch about Apple tracking my location.

So what’s the big deal? There’s a log of your locations on your phone and in a hidden file on your backup computer. I’m sure as I type this there’s already an app under development that’ll wipe it clean for anyone who’s really concerned.