Below 10,000 feet: gadgets on planes

by Daniel Rubino, Derek Kessler, Kevin Michaluk, Phil Nickinson, and Rene Ritchie

It’s not often the rules change, especially when it comes to aviation. Since the Wright brothers first propelled their wood-and-fabric plane into the sky in 1903 we’ve been banned from using electronic devices below 10,000 feet. (They had iPods back then, right?)

Of course, there was reasoning behind the ban, or at least reasonable fear. Electronics by their very nature emit electromagnetic radiation, which has the potential to interfere with the ostensibly sensitive instruments of an aircraft. Takeoff and landing are the most dangerous phases of any flight, the points where those instruments need to be their most accurate. So in the early days of portable electronics, when they were more electromagnetically leaky and the instruments in the cockpit weren’t as protected as they are today, an abundance of caution led to portable electronics being banned during takeoff and landing.

But in the years since that ban was instituted, our gadgets have become less leaky. Copious research has been applied to determining just how much interference these devices might actually cause (the answer is minimal to none). And the electronics that control these planes have been hardened, but to protect against much more nefarious interferences such as electromagnetic pulse bombs or terrorist hacking intended to knock planes out of the sky.

Our gadgets and our planes today are safe together. And so the government aviation authorities have decided that it’s time to lift the ban. You’re not yet free to move about the cabin during that initial ascent and final approach, but you can keep tapping away at your tablet and smartphone. So beyond having your possible usage time extended from the time you sit down to the time you get up, what else do these new rules mean for airborne travelers?


It's a symbolic victory, but it feels good

By Phil Nickinson

Flying is a pain in the ass. Very few people will argue with that. It’s all that wasted time, sitting around. It’s the indignity of essentially being treated like a criminal as you cross the threshold from real life to revenue passenger. It’s the incessant scream of CNN (or worse) on the airport televisions at every gate. It’s the often overlapping gate announcements. It’s the cramped seats and dwindling in-flight amenities.

But perhaps the biggest problem has been our devolving attention spans — that need to fill every second of every day with something. And for many of us, that’s where our phones and tablets come in.

So that brief interlude between the time the forward boarding door closes and you hear the familiar “ding … ding …” signaling that we’ve reached 10,000 feet and it is now safe to use certain portable electronic devices may well feel like the longest two miles of your life.

We get that. (And I’ll save for another time the argument that indeed it is possible to have moments of quiet reflection while crammed into an aluminum tube with 150 of your closest strangers.)

For those of us who fly a lot — or even for the first-time fliers — being able to listen to music or read a book or play a game from the moment we take our seats and fasten our seat belt low and tight across our laps to the time the plane comes to a complete stop at the gate serves two purposes.

It's a small compromise to those who are tired of being treated like children and potential rule breakers.

First, it’s a symbolic victory. A small compromise to those who spend their time and money on travel and are tired of being treated like children and potential rule-breakers. (Perhaps the change will spur more travelers to act less like youngsters and hooligans, but, again, I digress.)

But more important is that it’s one less hassle. One less interruption in a process that’s simultaneously hurried and monotonous, and continuously punctuated with the reminder that you must follow all these rules, or else!

Phones and our tablets are security blankets for grown-ups. Too many of us don’t know what to do without them — even for a mere 10,000 feet.

Please don't let phones be next

By Kevin Michaluk

While I’m ecstatic over the use of gadgets during takeoff and landing, I’m an advocate of quiet gadget use on planes. Wear earbuds when playing a game or watching a video. Tap out a nice quiet text. The last thing I want to deal with on an airplane is more loud, obnoxious and self-absorbed people talking way too loud — there’s already enough of those people boarding planes and being annoying until the door closes.

Maybe it’s just my bad luck, but I always find that whenever I board a plane there’s always one or two obnoxious people on their phone, talking way too loud (everybody on the plane can hear the conversation), trying to sort out some sort of work crisis in the final moments before the airplane door closes and the flight attendant tells them they have to get off their phone, and then they continue talking anyway.

On a flight from Toronto to San Francisco, I got sandwiched between two of these people — a businessman in front of me who was bubbling with excitement over how well his sales trip just went, and a businesswoman behind me who was freaking out on a co-worker for not scheduling some sort of meeting. Why can’t these people just shut the hell up and type an email or send a text or IM instead? I don’t know. Maybe some people just need to yell.

To that end, I think it’s OK that devices like phones will need to be put in airplane mode still during this takeoff and landing period. If we moved onto the next step of allowing cell data/service to be used during a flight, I can just imagine all these annoying people becoming even more annoying as they start saying “are you still there? can you still hear me?” as they eventually climb out of signal range.

“Are you still there? Can you still hear me?”

While in theory radio waves propagate in a spherical fashion, radio engineers go to great lengths when designing and building cell phone antennas to not waste any more energy than needed transmitting anywhere that cell phones aren’t. For the most part, that means that cellular towers are focused on horizontal transmissions, keeping their broadcasts and ears pointed in the space between their footings and the horizon.

So as you sail up into the sky, you can bet you’re going to lose that signal anyway.

As I write this, the FCC is debating whether to lift the ban on cell phone usage on planes (mobile phones use licensed spectrum, and thus fall under the FCC’s purview, while the rest of your non-cellular gadgets fall under the domain of the FAA). But even if they do end the ban, they’ll do it purely for technical reasons, removing an unnecessary impediment to broadcasting.

If airlines wanted to offer cellular service on their flights, it’d essentially require outfitting each plane with femtocells — either one model to cover all networks, or — more likely — partnering with individual carriers to install their carrier-specific equipment on the plane.

As I think back to my experience dealing with jerks with phones on the plane just in that brief period before the jetway door closed, it turns out a cramped pressurized metal tube is one of those places where I’d be happy to not have cellular service.

When the closest outlet is 30,000 feet away

By Rene Ritchie

Now that you can, on an increasing number of airlines, use your phone or tablet from the moment you sit down, through takeoff and landing, until the moment you stand up, odds are you might do just that. Well, at least for as long as your battery life allows you.

Some planes do have USB or even AC power outlets, so battery life could be the least of your problems. But not all planes do have such electrical luxuries, though they may still have WiFi to encourage even more use. Maddening! If you find yourself in that situation, especially on a long flight, or one with many short connections, where you’re unsure when your next chance to power up will come, there are still ways to get the most out of the charge you have with you.

Time was the best advice we could give about extending battery life was to put a device into “airplane mode,” which killed all the radios and prevented them from draining the battery by continually screaming for a signal that doesn’t exist that high in the skies. Now that on-board electronics are all nice and legal, that toggle might need a new name, and we all might need a more complex strategy.

Very little is more wasteful on a phone than a radio that can’t find a signal.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t still kill the cellular radio. You absolutely should. Even if your plane has WiFi, it doesn’t have 3G or LTE, and very little is more wasteful on a phone than a radio that can’t find a signal. For some phones you need to toggle “airplane mode” off to do that, then selectively toggle WiFi back on (if there’s WiFi to be found on your plane) for others, you can kill the cellular radio directly. Either way, kill it. And unless you do have and plan to use WiFi, kill that as well. Bluetooth, too. Phones are really efficient nowadays, but nothing is more efficient than off.

The screens, especially the large, pixel-rich ones we have these days, are also huge power drains. If you’re doing something that doesn’t require the screen to be on — listening to music, audio podcasts, or audio book, for example — make sure it’s off. If you do need to see what you’re doing, turn the screen brightness down just as far as you can. On a dark plane, your eyes will adjust and your battery will thank you. So will your neighbor.

If you’re watching a movie, try to make sure you’re watching it in a native video format. Sure it’s nice to be able to play any old file you picked up off the ‘net, but modern devices can often decode native video formats like H.264 on hardware and not have to run processor intensive transcoders. Likewise, if you’re into playing games, try to pick games that won’t hit your graphics chip — and battery — like a freight train. That ultra-detailed first-person shooter comes at a price, and the price is power. Try a nice puzzle or word game to pass the time.

Some of this might sound negligible, or even silly, but it all adds up when you’re going to be flying for hours on end. Why not just take a nice long nap and save your battery for when you land? Well, that absolutely works, but if you want to be always on, and always connected, be smart about it too!

Streaming to the sky

By Daniel Rubino

The question of restricting anything, especially given the political climate today in the United States and around the world, brings to mind waving “Don’t tread on me!” flags and yokels yelling “Freedom!” over their French fries. The idea goes that you’re paying for internet bandwidth — ergo you can do whatever you want with it.

And in a perfect world, that’s true. The problem arises when you’re on a metal tube hurtling through the troposphere and all you have at your disposal is what feels like the equivalent of America Online dial-up.

Limiting or throttling specific types of content when the pool of available data is limited seems fair. After all, do you really need to stream Netflix or torrent that latest file from the sky? Sure it’d be convenient and someday we will get there, but for now, most people just want to browse the web, check email, update Facebook, send out a Tweet and other minor text-driven tasks. Those functions don’t require a lot of data, but it sure can be difficult if the wannabe David Fincher next to you insists on streaming the latest movie on Amazon Prime (people still use that, right?) over precious airborne bandwidth.

Ironically, it’s the 14-hour flight to Abu Dhabi where you may want to check-in on the world as opposed to the 45 minute puddle jumper to Miami.

The fact is, we’re in the very early days of airborne internet. Case in point, international flights are just now getting in-flight WiFi service whereas it was previously limited to domestic flights. Ironically, it’s the 14-hour flight to Abu Dhabi where you may want to check-in on the world as opposed to the 45 minute puddle jumper to Miami. Still, while airborne Internet works, it’s a far cry from the 4G LTE we enjoy on our phones. Because of that, we’ll have to wait until the technology catches up with people’s demands.

So, yes, people. Be considerate of your neighbor and don’t be a data hog. And if airlines (or their ISPs) can limit certain types of content, then they should. Just do what I do and order another drink and fire up the old disk defragmenter for some old-school entertainment.

Image source: Wikipedia

Privacy: you still have none

By Derek Kessler

Unless you’re in the privileged Diamond Platinum Elite Supreme Medallion First Business Class cabin, chances are if you’re on an airplane your bubble of personal space has been squeezed into a space not much wider than your pelvis. In the never-ending quest for more profit by cramming more passengers into the same-sized plane (plus our own internet-driven insistence as passengers for the lowest possible fares), we’ve been forced to all but abandon the concept of personal space on an airplane.

There’s no looking over somebody’s shoulder on the plane, mostly because you can just tilt your head to the side and have it resting on your neighbor’s shoulder. Whatever you’re doing on your computer or tablet or smartphone can be seen by your neighbor. If you happen to have an annoyingly chatty seatmate who has trouble keeping his eyes to himself (like your author), you might end up in conversation about whatever it is on your screen. I hope you like help with your puzzle games.

Crossing through the security checkpoint at the airport you’ve already abandoned all pretense of privacy, you shouldn’t expect any when you’re sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a hundred other travelers.

You shouldn’t expect any privacy when you’re sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a hundred other travelers.

In reality, the rules with regards to tech privacy and courtesy are no different with the change in restrictions. The first is to stay out of something that isn’t your business, even if the solution to your neighbor’s Sudoku puzzle is blatantly obvious and they just aren’t seeing it. The second is to not display anything that you aren’t willing to discuss — or that others would reasonably find offensive. So, no, you should not stream your favorite porno from gate to gate, even if the Wi-Fi is going to be on the entire flight.

Additionally, as a gadget user you should be cognizant of and courteous to your seatmates. If the cabin’s been darkened, turn down your screen. Always always always use headphones, and really consider using a decent pair so you don’t have to turn them up so loud that the noise leakage negates the point behind headphones. A decent pair of on-ear or over-ear headphones will do a lot to block out the noise of the plane anyway.

If you must bring up on your screen things that you don’t want to discuss, be it pornography or corporate documents or whatever, you should seriously consider investing in one of those polarized privacy filters. As former NSA chief Michael Hayden recently learned when giving background as a to-be-unnamed “former senior admin official” while on an Amtrak commuter train, there’s no such thing as privacy in a public place.

Image source: Wikipedia

So now that, for the most part, you can use your phone and your tablet from the gate to the runway to the sky and back down again, what has really changed?

Not a whole lot really. Being able to use our devices below 10,000 feet is a small victory, one that comes thanks to years of research and improvements in both the devices and the planes that reduce the chance of catastrophic failure to next-to-nothing (even with gadgets turned on flying remains by far the safest form of transportation).

The rest of the flying experience is still as dignity-stripping as always. We’re pushed through security queues of questionable effectiveness and unquestionable violation. We wait with similarly miserable masses to be crammed with them into a loud, pressurized tube that’s about to blast through the sky at hundreds of miles an hour. And we used to have to sit there for what could be upwards of an hour, depending on how long it takes to taxi, for other planes to take off, and to reach the mystical 10,000-foot threshold to turn on our devices again.

Smartphones and tablets are tools, yes. They’re tools for work, for communication, for entertainment. But they’re also tools for distraction. And maybe having the option of being distracted by work, communication, or entertainment for that time will make the indignities of modern air travel not seem as bad.

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