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.

The State of Macworld Expo

The end of an era? Looks that way to me.

When Apple announced, two years ago, that it would no longer attend Macworld Expo, lots of people said the announcement was Macworld Expo’s death knell. Like some other people, I thought that opinion was a both harsh and premature.

I don’t think that anymore.

On Friday, I did a presentation as a member of the Macworld Expo Conference faculty for the first time in at least eight years. I used to speak at Macworld Expo all the time, having at least one session in San Francisco and Boston (and later, New York) and even Toronto from about 1993 through 2002 or so. Back in the early 2000s, IDG took over the show and the conference management changed. They also went off in a new direction that stressed the creative aspects of working with the Mac. I was always more of a productivity person, so I didn’t fit in.

I still went to the show once in a while, but not very often. I came a few years ago, mostly to meet with one of my publishers. But that was it.

Looking back at it, I realize that I was deep in the Mac world at Apple’s first peak in popularity. The shows — especially in San Francisco — were huge. The very biggest shows took up both exhibit halls of Moscone Conference Center. All the big vendors were there — Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, Macromedia, Claris (later FileMaker), Quark — the list goes on and on. The show floor was buzzing all day long. The noise was deafening and there was a pure adrenaline rush on first entering the exhibit hall. And the products introduced! Even my husband talks about innovations like the Video Toaster (which, ironically, I believe ran on an Amiga). I remember all of Apple’s big hardware and software releases and the software demos that were both educational and entertaining. And how could I forget the Boston show where Mac OS 8 went on sale and my first Mac OS Visual QuickStart Guide sold out?

Afterwards, the parties would start. They were amazing affairs — the Exploratorium is a good example; the party sponsors rented the entire facility, leaving us to wander around and play with the exhibits. There was headliner entertainment, too: one year was Chris Isaac at one party and Jefferson Airplane at another. There were cruises and bungee jumps at Boston Harbor. There were full food, open bar parties at the top of the Fairmont in San Francisco. As one of the B+ list speakers/authors (in those days, anyway), I’d party hop with my peers. I remember one year bouncing from one party to the next with Bob Levitus, who always managed to get into all the parties, whether he had tickets or not.

Things change. Apple took a serious downturn. Things looked bad. Then Steve Jobs came back. The original iMac breathed new life into the company. More products followed. I remember seeing hundreds of buses all over San Francisco skinned with images of five colors of iMacs. But despite Apple’s subsequent successes, Macworld Expo was never quite the same. The show began to shrink.

What I saw on the show floor this year was a shock. The show was tiny — by old standards — occupying about half of one floor at the relatively new Moscone West building. At least 80% of the items on display could be classified as accessories — mostly protective or decorative covers — for the iPad and iPhone. There were very few Macintosh items.

Macworld Expo had become iAccessoryworld Expo.

Although most of the folks I spoke to about their thoughts on this matter seemed to agree with me — some more strongly than others — the members of the Macintosh press that I met there were surprisingly upbeat about it. One of them even commented that Microsoft’s support for the show is a good sign. Support for the show? They didn’t even have a booth! Having a party for a chosen few and being one of the sponsors on another party isn’t the kind of support I’d be upbeat about.

If I had travelled to San Francisco for the sole purpose of seeing the show floor — as I know many people did in the past — I would have been sorely disappointed. Disappointed enough to demand my money back. What I wouldn’t be able to get back was the travel time and expense and the three hours of my life spent trying to understand how so many accessory developers could think there was a market for yet another version of an iPad case. Or skin. Or screen protector.

The real value in Macworld Expo was the conference sessions — now more than ever. The conference management assembled a collection of experts — some old timers like me, some younger and newer to Mac OS (and iOS, of course) — and offered a variety of interesting tracks and sessions for Mac, iPhone, and iPad users.

My session about building your iPad for business was relatively well attended — the room was about half full. I received a handful of follow-up questions and a polite round of applause at the conclusion of my talk. Several of the attendees came up to the front of the room to thank me or offer complements. It was like the old days, but on a much smaller scale.

After all, Friday’s room could have held only about 100 people when, in the past, I did sessions that packed a room that seated more than 300.

And the meeting room area at Macworld Expo used to be busier than a high school hallway between classes each time a session let out. Now only a few dozen people meandered about, shuffling from room to room.

At least these people got something worthwhile for their money.

I know these are harsh words and, as a member of the Mac community with a long Macworld Expo history, it’s hard for me to type them. The conference faculty was treated quite well, with generously filled swag bags, a comfortable place to rest between sessions, and both breakfast and lunch every day. The session rooms were relatively well equipped. It’s hard to share negative opinions about Macworld Expo when IDG staff responsible for the conference part of the show treated me well. But if this blog post precludes me from ever speaking again at a Macworld Expo, so be it. I don’t sugar coat anything and I’m certainly not going to sugar coat this.

While I realize that the old days are long gone, I think that if IDG can’t do better than what I experienced this past week in San Francisco, they should throw in the towel on Macworld Expo and concentrate on better ways to share valuable information with Mac OS and iOS users.

Why I Canceled My Nook Order

And why I might buy one anyway.

As an avid reader, I’ve been attracted to the idea of an ebook reader for years. But until this past autumn, I haven’t really found one I thought I’d actively use.

Before that were offerings from Sony, which seemed to fall far short of what I thought was a good design. The blinking page turns would drive me batty, since I knew I could go through an average page in 10-20 seconds. (Have I mentioned that I read very fast?)

Kindle came out and lots of people loved it, but I was turned off by Amazon.com’s aggressive marketing, limited format support, and high book prices. (Like many other book buyers, I don’t feel that an ebook’s cost should be anywhere near the cost of its printed version.) And when Amazon snatched purchased books off of Kindles without warning, I started wondering what other kind of access Amazon had and whether it would use it.

Enter, the Nook

NookThen Barnes and Noble introduced its Nook. Or at least it announced it. It seemed more in line with what I was looking for in size, cost (for the unit and books), features, and flexibility. I visited B&N stores regularly to get my hands on one and give it a try. No joy there. Even after November 30, when the units were supposed to be available for purchase, I could not seem to find one. And I certainly wasn’t going to buy one until I either read a lot of reviews about it or had some quality time with a demo unit. I did see a few reviews and they were, for the most part, positive. But I still wasn’t prepared to buy one until I could walk away from the store with it.

Christmas came. My husband decided to buy one for me. Of course, he couldn’t get his hands on one, either. But he ordered one online. They said it would ship in January. He asked for some kind of card he could give me on Christmas Day, in its place. They charged him $4 for a card that looked like a nook. And that’s what I opened on Christmas Day.

A few days later, he checked with B&N again to see when the Nook would arrive. They projected the end of January.


An Apple Tablet?

This week, the Apple Tablet rumors have been in full swing. I’ve been wanting an Apple Tablet — or at least thinking I wanted an Apple Tablet; more on that in a moment — since last spring. I actually put off the purchase of a 13-inch MacBook Pro, hoping a Mac netbook would become available before then. Apple kept insisting they weren’t going to develop a netbook. I caved and bought the 13-inch MacBook Pro to replace a 15-inch MacBook Pro and the 12-inch PowerBook before it. (I still have both of those; anyone want to buy one?)

So here I sit, on January 6, expecting a Nook right around the same time that Apple might announce something infinitely better.

Or not.

The way I see it, Apple could do one of two things:

  • It could announce an Apple Tablet that basically reinvents ebook readers and tablet computers at the same time. Kind of like what the iPod did for MP3 players years ago. Something that would blow all the existing options out of the water. Something not only I’d want, but everyone with a need (or desire) for mobile computing or an ebook reader would want.
  • It could announce an Apple Tablet that, although attractive in its design and interface, falls short of what I need or want as an ebook reader or tablet computer. Or marry the device to a partner that I can’t do business with. This is what I thought about the iPhone and AT&T. I might have gone with the iPhone if I could choose my own carrier — without jailbreaking — but the AT&T partnership was a deal breaker for me.

An iPhone-like Situation

Indeed, my situation today has a lot in common with the iPhone announcement and release. Back then, I was in the market for my first smartphone. My Motorola flip phone was four years old (at least) and I wanted to tap into the basic computing power of a smart phone to store contact information, calendar events, and simple applications that would help me as a pilot (weather, flight planning, etc.). It was vital that the phone be able to communicate with my Macs to exchange information. When the iPhone came out, it looked like a dream come true.

Yet just days before people started lining up to buy iPhones, I bought my Palm Treo 700p. At the time, it was a better decision for me. Two years later, I updated to a Blackberry Storm. Again, it was better for me.

You see, unlike so many other people, I don’t buy the hot new gadget just because it’s a hot new gadget. I buy it because it meets my needs. The iPhone doesn’t meet my needs. I need a carrier with coverage in remote places. Verizon is that carrier. (Hell, AT&T can’t even get a good signal at my house.) I’m not interested in dropping $1.99 every few days or weeks on cool apps I don’t need or playing games on my phone. I’m not interested in being able to join wi-fi networks — in the very remote places I go, I consider myself lucky to have a cell signal at all. I need “tethering” to get my computer on the Internet via my cell phone’s Internet connection. The Treo and the Storm both support that through Verizon; I just learned that the iPhone still does not via AT&T. I’m not interested in jailbreaking a phone to add features that the maker and carrier don’t want me to have. I want a fully functioning, fully supported smartphone that does exactly what I need it to do, right out of the box. That’s why I don’t have an iPhone.

Now before you iPhone lovers get your panties in a bunch, just remember that I’m talking about my needs and wants. Not yours. Yes, your iPhone is very cool. Yes, I wish it met my needs. But although it might be perfect for you, it simply doesn’t meet my needs. I made my decision. Don’t waste your time and mine blasting me in Comments because I haven’t drunk the iPhone Kool-Aid and sacrificed my needs so I can be cool, too.

My Point

And that brings up one of two points in this post:

  • Barnes & Noble failed when it introduced its Nook right before Christmas and didn’t have enough units on hand to sell to customers who wanted them. That failure was only made worse when the Apple Tablet rumors starting churning up again. Why would anyone buy now and wait until January month-end for a device when Apple, which is known for innovative, game-changing designs, could announce a competing product around the same time? Hell, if the Apple Tablet is the product I hope it is, I’d buy one even if I already had a Nook. But the Nook hasn’t arrived and B&N has just lost a sale.
  • Although I’m huge Apple fan who has been using Macs since 1989, writing about them since 1990, and, indeed, earning a living as someone who teaches others about Apple products and software, I won’t buy an Apple Tablet if it doesn’t meet my needs. (Maybe it’s because I’d be buying it for me, and not to impress others with it. ) I’d like to think that there are other people like me who feel the same way. Don’t buy it just because it has an Apple logo on it. Buy it because it’s the best product to meet your needs.

It’s because I’m willing to wait and see what might be available soon that I’m in a good position to get what I want instead of compromising on features. I like immediate gratification as much as the next geek, but after buying so many gadgets over the years — heck, I still have a Newton MessagePad on the shelf! — I’ve learned not to rush out and buy what might be the next great thing. I’m willing to wait, at least until April or May, to make my ebook reader purchase.

Whether it’s an Apple Tablet or a Nook or something else that materializes between now and then remains to be seen.

But one thing’s for certain: it will be the right purchase decision for me.