Electronic Devices in Flight

Q: Why can’t I use my cell phone during flight, and why are laptops also restricted? Even more annoying, we are asked to turn off devices as innocuous as portable CD players. Can these things really interfere with flight?

I’m asked about this frequently, but in researching the answer I’m confused by much of what I uncover. While I’m not an electronics expert, there have been several cases where devices (mainly cellular phones) have indeed interfered with the electronics aboard airliners. I can assure you the rules are not arbitrary or a scam to make you splurge on a pricey on-board satellite phone. One report cites a regional jet forced to return to the airport for an emergency landing after a fire warning sounded in the cockpit. Investigation revealed the alarm was triggered when a cell phone in the luggage compartment had begun to ring. I’ve also heard anecdotal evidence from pilots about times when cell phones have caused trouble.

Something of an easily-digestible explanation can be read at: www.howstuffworks.com/question230.htm

There appears to be little evidence that laptop computers pose a similar threat, but the airlines are erring on the safe side. And a laptop, like any other carry-on, must be stowed during takeoff and landing to prevent it from becoming a 200 mile-per-hour projectile.

Remember that some devices, like Walkman or Discman players, are prohibited during takeoff and landing not necessarily because of interference, but so passengers are able to hear PA announcements and instructions in the event of trouble. In this spirit, maybe airlines should demand earplug removal and wake up all sleeping passengers, but it seems they’ve drawn the line at listening to music.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.