In-flight electronics ban is based on fears – not on any evidence

I am always irritated when the regulations regarding in-flight electronics are announced at the start of a flight. I dutifully switch my phone off not because I have any perception of causing danger but only because I don’t want to be denied travel.

There is no evidence whatsoever that using electronic devices on flights – whether during take-off and landing or while cruising – has any deleterious effects on aircraft navigation or any other technical operations during the flight. But this regulation – like so many others – was based originally on fears. Getting rid of an existing regulation even when there is no evidence that the fear is justified is extremely difficult. Once any irrational – but fear-based – regulation is in place the onus of proof shifts from showing something to be unsafe to proving instead that it is not unsafe. And proving a negative is not very easy.

An FAA regulator is walking down the street snapping his fingers continuously. A guy stops him and asks, “Why are you snapping your fingers all the time?”  “To keep wild elephants away.” “That’s ridiculous!“, says the guy. The regulator replies, “Oh, yeah? You don’t see any wild elephants around do you?”

The Wall Street Journal writes:

Do Our Gadgets Really Threaten Planes?

The ban on electronic devices rests on anecdotes, not on hard evidence—because there isn’t any.

…. On Aug. 31, the Federal Aviation Administration requested public comment on its longstanding policy of prohibiting the use of personal electronics during takeoffs and landings. The restrictions date back to 1991 and were motivated in part by anecdotal reports from pilots and flight crews that electronic devices affected an airliner’s navigation equipment or disrupted communication between the cockpit and the ground. Over the years, however, Boeing has been unable to duplicate these problems, and the FAA can only say that the devices’ radio signals “may” interfere with flight operations. …… 

…… Why has the regulation remained in force for so long despite the lack of solid evidence to support it? Human minds are notoriously overzealous “cause detectors.” When two events occur close in time, and one plausibly might have caused the other, we tend to assume it did. There is no reason to doubt the anecdotes told by airline personnel about glitches that have occurred on flights when they also have discovered someone illicitly using a device. 

But when thinking about these anecdotes, we don’t consider that glitches also occur in the absence of illicit gadget use. More important, we don’t consider how often gadgets have been in use when flights have been completed without a hitch. Our survey strongly suggests that there are multiple gadget violators on almost every flight.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and precaution is a natural response. Regulators are loath to make policies less restrictive, out of a justifiable concern for passenger safety. It is easy to visualize the horrific consequences should a phone cause a plane to crash, so the FAA imposes this inconvenience as a precaution.

Once a restriction is in place, though, removing it becomes a challenge because every day without a gadget-induced accident cements our belief that the status quo is right and justified. Unfortunately, this logic is little better than that of Homer Simpson, who organized an elaborate Bear Patrol in the city of Springfield and exulted in the absence of bear sightings that ensued. ……. 

The so-called precautionary principle is no principle at all – it is just an excuse for avoiding rational decision when knowledge is lacking and panders to alarmism.

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