Ask LH: Do Electronic Devices Really Need To Be Turned Off During Takeoff And Landing?

Dear Lifehacker, When you fly on an aeroplane, you get told to turn off and stow portable electronics, but is this really necessary? Sometimes I leave my phone on during take off on purpose by accident and nothing ever happens. Is this rule B.S. or is there really something to it? Sincerely, Flummoxed Flyer

Title photo remixed from originals by andersphoto and Stasys Eidiejus (Shutterstock)

Dear FF,

The quick answer is no, electronic devices do not pose a problem so long as everything is going smoothly on the flight. It’s when there are issues that your electronic devices can potentially make things worse. Regulation states that various electronic devices can cause interference with the plane and therefore need to be turned off for the safety of everybody onboard. But as you’ve probably noticed, your iPod and Kindle alone are not going to interfere with the plane’s navigation and communication systems. The potential problem is the combined interference of many devices. In some cases this is pretty much B.S. and in some cases it isn’t. Here’s why.

Your Electronics Can (Technically) Interfere With the Planes…

Electronic devices can cause Radio Frequency Interference (RFI), and this was a very real concern when aeroplanes relied on Non-Directional Beacon (NDB) navigation. NDB navigation uses AM signals which are pretty susceptible to RFI. That said, most modern aircrafts don’t use NDB navigation anymore in favour of VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR) navigation. To put this in perspective, AM radio signals fall in the medium frequency (MF) range and VHF stands for very high frequency. The lower the radio frequency range the more susceptible it tends to be to RFI. VHF, being by name a set of very high frequencies, doesn’t have that problem nearly as much. Basically, VHF doesn’t really care that your iPod is blasting music into your noise-cancelling headset, because those devices don’t cause much interference. A pile of laptops, on the other hand, could offer up a more significant amount of RFI. For the plane’s flight crew to go over each and every device that could possible pose a problem would basically be a waste of time, and that would also require extensive testing by authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It’s just easier to lump everything into one category and request that you turn it off.…But That Risk Is Really Low…

But if some electronics do pose a risk, why aren’t more planes having issues? As seen in Myth Busters, aeroplanes are shielded to prevent this problem. Basically, it’s not much an issue at all. What’s even better for your in-flight portable electronics are Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) and GPS, which are both more accurate than VOR and operate on higher frequencies (meaning less RFI-related issues). When these systems are the norm your portable electronics will be basically irrelevant to the plane’s navigation, even though they pretty much are already.

So is there actually a problem? No, not really, but it all comes down to an emergency precautions. As take off and landing account for half of flying accidents (PDF), it’s important to have emergency communications available. Some of the aircraft emergency frequencies are in the lower range, which is a range more susceptible to interference. While the plane is shielded from interference, you have to ask yourself this: if your pilot needs to communicate on these lower frequencies in the event of an emergency, do you want to risk the chance of RFI?

…and You Should Just Deal With It

Ultimately this risk appears to be very low and you have very little to worry about, but as comedian Louis C.K. notes, you’re flying through the sky in a chair. That’s pretty awesome. In the near-ish future we’ll have better technology in most aircrafts and we’ll tell our grandchildren about the arduous ten minutes of flight in which we could read on our Kindles (to which they’ll ask, “What’s a Kindle?”). While it’s barely an issue right now, it’s not one you may want to risk, and your time without electronics is just a blip during one day of your life. Let it go and take the time to enjoy a quiet moment with your thoughts while flying through the sky in a chair.


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