Using Electronics on Takeoff, Standing Flight Attendants (Ask Cranky)

I have an Ask Cranky two-fer today as one reader had two semi-related questions to ask. Fortunately, I’ve got the answers (or as close to the answers as I’m going to get).

Hi Cranky,
A couple questions about FAA Regulations.
1) I’ve often wondered why FA’s are free to walk around the cabin (to check seatbelts, pass out menus, etc) on taxi out but have to remain seated until the plane reaches the gate upon arrival. Same airplane traveling on the same taxiways but different rules. Note: I fly AA – perhaps this is not the case on other carriers.
2) Are the rules regarding no electronic devices upon takeoff and landing really necessary? Are the regulations based on science? Could an iPod or Laptop really bring down a 777?
Buster.

Let’s take these in order.

  1. The official ruling is in Federal Aviation Regulations Section 121.391 (d):

    During takeoff and landing, flight attendants required by this section shall be located as near as practicable to required floor level exists and shall be Ask Crankyuniformly distributed throughout the airplane in order to provide the most effective egress of passengers in event of an emergency evacuation. During taxi, flight attendants required by this section must remain at their duty stations with safety belts and shoulder harnesses fastened except to perform duties related to the safety of the airplane and its occupants.
    So it’s because they get to perform safety-related duties such as checking safety belts upon departure. If they’re handing out menus, well, that’s probably not allowed. I’m sure that if it’s in conjunction with the seatbelt check it’s not a big deal.

  2. I have heard a couple different reasons for this, but maybe others can chime in:
    • Some devices could be problematic while others may not be, but it’s easier to just ban them all to avoid any confusion or issues.
    • I’ve also heard that it’s a safety concern in a different way. During the most critical phases of flight (takeoff and landing), it is important that passengers be able to pay attention to their surroundings and clearly understand crew instructions. If you’re listening to your iPod or playing a video game, that might make evacuation more difficult if necessary.

24 Responses to Using Electronics on Takeoff, Standing Flight Attendants (Ask Cranky)

  1. aviator says:

    I can unconditionally guarantee that if the plane crashes, I will notice even if wearing an iPod. This is a made up rule, and everyone knows it. I comply out of respect for the FAs and “the Rules,” but the whole thing is bogus. If it weren’t, planes would have already crashed since nobody turns their electronics (phones, laptops) off anyway. They simply tuck them out of view.

  2. Marvin S. says:

    I think if flight attendants got up before the plane reached the gate on landing, so would many other people. Heck, it happens when the plane stops short of the gate. As for electronic equipment, I was on a flight to FLL once and on the downwind leg to land, the pilot got on the PA and said with some urgency in his voice “whoever just turned on their cellphone, TURN IT OFF NOW!!!” I am sure he did this for a reason. Whether other devices do the same, I am not sure. However, passengers should be prepared to evacuate a plane if something bad should happen (landings are controlled crashes).

  3. A says:

    I have to admit that on more than a couple occasions I’ve stowed my bag in the overhead bin with phone inside and on, only to discover this upon landing. I would think the avionics on a plane are free from disturbance via cheap consumer electronics. That said, I’m sure someone could go to Radio Shack and build something that would cause disruption in the cockpit. Better safe than sorry is ok with me on that regulation. Besides, I hate how everyone yaks on their phones right up to the second the door closes, or the FA has to lecture someone. Seriously, it can wait until you land.

  4. Mythbusters did a thing with the cell phones. They found that with the shielding around some of the wiring partially degraded that cell phones did screw with navigation radios.

    On the plane I fly, if a phone is being used in the first half of the airplane we hear a very obnoxious clicking noise over the intercom. Sometimes the noise is actually louder than radio transmissions.

    They claimed in my training that the flight control computer on the plane was also susceptible to interference from cell phones, though the stuff that would result is non-critical. However, it has been heavily shielded to prevent this.

    So, long story short. Yes, these things interfere. However, everything has been shielded to prevent the interference. But, do you want to take a risk that the shielding is fully intact?

  5. Eric says:

    Working at an airport I see lots of people walking around doing things w/ their mobile, ordering, food, asking question, and maybe even while they take a leak. So I think they are just physically attached and addicted to this gizmo.

    I drive a ’96 Camry and when I place my mobile in the hole under the radio system I can hear popping sound through the speakers when I am about to receive a call. Granted, my car may not have the better shielding but it shows that this signal is strong. Under certain conditions, I also feel my left ear drum vibrating when I listen with my right ear.

    Although I still ponder about the the mobile phone question when I’m onbaord an aircraft, but out of common courtesy, I think people should just relax and listen, and not end up being dictated by regulations. No one is too precious to not exhibit courtesy.

  6. ptahcha says:

    The Mythbuster episode referenced by Greg is annotated here: http://kwc.org/mythbusters/2006/04/episode_49_cellphones_on_plane.html

  7. Andrew says:

    Different types of cell phones have different levels of interference, as well: Those that use the GSM standard (AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S., and pretty much the rest of the world’s cell providers except those in Japan and South Korea, I believe) “pulse” at 217 Hz, which is easily picked up as that “dzzt…dzzt…dzzt…dzzzzzzzt” interference on even moderately shielded electronics. It’s much more likely to manifest as a buzzing in the pilot’s ear on his/her headset than causing avionics to register incorrectly, however.

    I believe it is a “safety” issue in the sense that they want people to be paying attention during the dicey take off and landing portions of a flight, and it’s been sold to the public — either intentionally or unintentionally — as a physical safety/interference issue since there’s a nugget of truth, but probably falls in the “struck by lighting twice in a row” level of probability.

  8. Alex Hill says:

    “I can unconditionally guarantee that if the plane crashes, I will notice even if wearing an iPod.”

    OK, but what about the announcement from the flight attendants or pilots that the plane is ABOUT to crash and the brace instructions, with the repetition of the evacuation procedures specific to the plane you’re on and the conditions you’re landing in? If you know whether to avoid the front exit door or rear exit door in case of a water landing on a 737 or A320 (I believe the answer is different on different types), congratulations, but do you really know what the crew is going to tell you so well that you don’t need to be listening. There are also far less drastic things that can happen that passengers still ought to hear. Are you special enough that you can have your music playing and just get the notes from a seatmate if there was anything important?

    I’m not saying I’m convinced that this is the reason for the electronic device ban (which long predates ubiquitous iPods anyway).

    From an interference point of view, I suspect that one or two iPods or cell phones left on is fine, as it does happen nearly every flight, but one for every passenger would create considerably more interference. Should airlines really get into the business of specifying which passengers get to be the lucky ones to keep their electronics on? I don’t think so.

  9. David SFeastbay says:

    Have humans gotten so wacked up in life that some can’t do anything with out having a phone to their head? And since we all have to hear what they are saying, it’s all mindless chatter anyway.

    Keep the phone off and enjoy the silence of not having to hear half of a mindless conversation someone else is having.

    Paying attention during take offs and landings make sense. Someone with the volumn turned up on their iPod and eyes closed enjoying the music may not hear what is about to happen to them, or even if their flight has is canceled once they board. If they can’t hear that, they wouldn’t know to whip out their cell phone and call everyone they know to tell the flight was just canceled……lol

    Good point on why FA’s stay seated until reaching the gate on landings. The plane stops moving for a nano-second and half the plane jumps up and starts opening the overheard to get their stuff. If they saw FA’s do it all the time, more might start doing it thinking if they can do it so can I. But there isn’t much for them to do anyway if they stood up right after landing. They need to be at their seat so they can use the intercom and tell us the local time.

    Now there is an ask Cranky question. Why do FA’s on a flight within the same time zone need to tell us the local time? In all my years of flying between the Bay Area and Southern California, the time has never changed…….lol

  10. It’s not the flight attendants walking around while taxing that bothers me, it is when they turn the seatbelt sign on because of “turbulence”, yet they continue to serve hot coffee and other beverages. If turbulence is a danger to passengers who have to go the bathroom, why is it not a danger to flight attendants conducting non-safety related duties?

    Worse, how are they not endangering me and my family if they, their coffee pots, and their beverage carts are flying around the cabin during actual turbulence?

    Ever notice turbulence seems to be a threat around beverage service and meal times, and the seatbelt sign often stays on for a long time after some very minor turbulence? Coincidence?

  11. Colm says:

    @ Jason Steele:

    Don’t know which airline you fly, but on BA, they do not serve hot drinks while the Fasten Seatbelt sign is on.

  12. Andrew wrote:

    Different types of cell phones have different levels of interference, as well: Those that use the GSM standard (AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S., and pretty much the rest of the world’s cell providers except those in Japan and South Korea, I believe) “pulse” at 217 Hz, which is easily picked up as that “dzzt…dzzt…dzzt…dzzzzzzzt” interference on even moderately shielded electronics.

    I’ve had this happen at work. You’ll get clicking in the call you’re talking on your desk phone and have to move the GSM phone as far away from your phone as possible. Sometimes it can become quite a funny dance.

    Jason Steele wrote:

    It’s not the flight attendants walking around while taxing that bothers me, it is when they turn the seatbelt sign on because of “turbulence”, yet they continue to serve hot coffee and other beverages. If turbulence is a danger to passengers who have to go the bathroom, why is it not a danger to flight attendants conducting non-safety related duties?
    Worse, how are they not endangering me and my family if they, their coffee pots, and their beverage carts are flying around the cabin during actual turbulence?

    My guess with this would be that FA’s are trained to deal with turbulence and know how to properly restrain themselves. Although it is a good question why airlines don’t serve coffee from sealed decanters with the push button on top instead of the normal pots that they use. This would be safer and more convenient, but probably just extra equipment to have available after brewing the coffee.

    That being said when turbulence gets really bad the pilots tell the FA’s to sit down and stow everything.

    This does remind me of an interesting incident report. I was reading through DC-10 incidents, and one of them was the flight attendant stepped on a salt shaker and sprained her ankle during turbulence.

    So another ask cranky question, what happens to the soda cart during decompression?

  13. CF says:

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    Now there is an ask Cranky question. Why do FA’s on a flight within the same time zone need to tell us the local time?

    My guess is that it just makes it easier to standardize the announcements. Half the time, flight attendants have had so many flights across so many time zones that they have no idea where they are. This just makes it easier!

    Jason Steele wrote:

    It’s not the flight attendants walking around while taxing that bothers me, it is when they turn the seatbelt sign on because of “turbulence”, yet they continue to serve hot coffee and other beverages. If turbulence is a danger to passengers who have to go the bathroom, why is it not a danger to flight attendants conducting non-safety related duties?

    I think Nicholas is right. When flight attendants are still walking around, the turbulence is expected to be pretty light. It’s just a safety precaution to keep passengers in seats even if the likelihood if something bad happening is pretty low. That’s why when things get bad, you’ll hear the captain call for flight attendants to take their seats.

    Nicholas Barnard wrote:

    So another ask cranky question, what happens to the soda cart during decompression?

    Beats the heck out of me. Those cans very well might explode, I guess. Any physics pros here?

  14. Ed Kelty says:

    As a sometime private pilot, I appreciate the restrictions on use of electronic equipment during takeoff and landing. No, it is not fully science based. However, there are so many variations in consumer equipment and aircraft shielding that is better not to take a chance with interference. There have been enough episodes of problems even if scientifically we can show that the statistical odds are low.

    The taxi rules during takeoff and landing are based on experience. I was once on an Allegheny flight at Albany, NY, which crashed into a baggage truck and disabled the plane. Glad I was in place and the attendants were alert.

  15. MathFox says:

    Nicholas Barnard wrote:
    So another ask cranky question, what happens to the soda cart during decompression?

    The chips bags will likely pop… but the cans will resist decompression.
    Soda cans are filled at a few atmosphere CO? pressure and will resist the extra atmosphere when decompressed to vacuum, they resist some heating too.

  16. MathFox says:

    Nicholas Barnard wrote:
    So another ask cranky question, what happens to the soda cart during decompression?

    The chips bags will likely pop… but the cans will resist decompression.
    Soda cans are filled at a few atmosphere CO2 pressure and will resist the extra atmosphere when decompressed to vacuum, they resist some heating too.

  17. Adam says:

    the electronics ban is completely unneeed. There are no studies (i’m not counting mythbusters) that show any problems. But there are scientists who insist there could possibly be a problem. One has to imagine that there are many electronic devises which aren’t turned off when a plane takes off or lands and so far no one has had a problem. I used to work for Hillary and Bill Clinton and the secret service has never had a problem using their phones or computers during takeoff and landing. hard to believe that if there was a major issue they would allow it. Trust me they wouldn’t.

  18. Debbie says:

    Hey Cranky,
    I think I might be able to provide a little insight into the whole electronics devices issue… I spoke w/ a ‘high-ranking’ FAA official a few months back and asked “So, what’s the FAA’s real position about electronic devices?” This is what he said in the simplest & most concise of terms:

    Specifically in the case of an airbus airplane (and in my opinion, probably all “glass” airplanes), it has 5 servers onboard that control the aircraft and since they are all servers, they all have the capability of initiating an ‘action’. So, any electronic device that has the ability to emit an EMF has the ability to inadvertently cause an ‘action’ to be initiated by 1 of these servers IF they aren’t sufficiently shielded from EMFs. The variety of electronic devices out there have the ability to emit EMFs of varying levels and also have the ability to ‘pull or search for a signal’ at varying strengths and thus cause a legitimate concern for use during flight critical times. This FAA official went on to say that incidences such as decompressions, change in altitude, change in heading have occurred and are theorized to be attributed to the effect of electronic device use. While the occasion for such situations to occur are probably very few & far between (Thank goodness), I believe this is a legitimate reason to eliminate all use… plus, WHY is it such a big deal to ask ppl to turn off their devices for 20+ mins of the flight????

    I hope that this provides some insight into the legitimacy of this FAR and also allows your readers to better understand the seriousness of our need for compliance.

    Thanks for posting the Q!
    Your friendly FA

  19. Brad says:

    Question for Cranky:

    When I fly (read: sleep on a plane), I prefer to hold my backpack/msgr bag. I gives my arms something to do when I get stuck in the middle seat, and when I sleep at night I normally hold a pillow.

    Can you explain why the FAs ALWAYS make a point to wake me up and tell me to stow it under the seat, but never tell the young mother across the aisle to stow her lap child?

    Kind of a double standard…

  20. Brad wrote:

    When I fly (read: sleep on a plane), I prefer to hold my backpack/msgr bag. I gives my arms something to do when I get stuck in the middle seat, and when I sleep at night I normally hold a pillow.
    Can you explain why the FAs ALWAYS make a point to wake me up and tell me to stow it under the seat, but never tell the young mother across the aisle to stow her lap child?

    In the event of sudden deacceleration (e.g. a crash) it is likely your bag will become a potentially deadly projectile. That being said, it is also likely the lap child will become a potentially doubly deadly projectile.

    Honestly, lap children are a bad idea, and one of the flight attendants from United Flight 232, Jan Brown Lohr, as well as the NTSB have rallied against allowing lap children.

  21. CF says:

    Brad wrote:

    Question for Cranky:
    When I fly (read: sleep on a plane), I prefer to hold my backpack/msgr bag. I gives my arms something to do when I get stuck in the middle seat, and when I sleep at night I normally hold a pillow.
    Can you explain why the FAs ALWAYS make a point to wake me up and tell me to stow it under the seat, but never tell the young mother across the aisle to stow her lap child?
    Kind of a double standard…

    I agree with Nicholas that this isn’t a great idea, but I can see the difference. If there’s an accident, your bag can block your way out of the airplane. The kid will do the same thing, but you’re supposed to bring the kid with you while you’re supposed to leave the bag on the plane.

  22. Matt says:

    Another Question for Cranky:

    Why are cell phones allowed to be used after landing while taxiing to the gate, yet all other electronic devices prohibited?

    It seems strange that the electronic devices deemed safe enough to be used during a flight would be prohibited while taxiing to the gate, yet cell phones (which are never allowed during a flight) would suddenly become permissible.

    It’s as if the safety classifications of these two types of devices flip flop immediately upon landing.

  23. CF says:

    Matt wrote:

    Another Question for Cranky:
    Why are cell phones allowed to be used after landing while taxiing to the gate, yet all other electronic devices prohibited?
    It seems strange that the electronic devices deemed safe enough to be used during a flight would be prohibited while taxiing to the gate, yet cell phones (which are never allowed during a flight) would suddenly become permissible.
    It’s as if the safety classifications of these two types of devices flip flop immediately upon landing.

    Yeah, that’s a good question. My guess is that it is entirely because of public pressure and for no other reason. I suppose the idea is that people need to call or text their rides to let them know they’re around, but I can’t really come up with a good justification.

    Anyone else know?

  24. Ryan says:

    im only 15 but i almost have my private pilots license. i guess having electronics on can mess with communication or whatever but the airlines and the FAA are only strict about takeoffs and landings because before you reach an altitude of at less 10,000 for an airline your not at crusing altitudes. and when you are flying a flight from one place to another you have to talk to air trafic control (atc) mostly when your climbing to your crusing altitude or decending after that theyre done (sort of) but if the communication between the airline and the control tower was interfeared the plane might get in a colussion with another plane or have to land

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