Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Few things try the modern soul like air travel. The endless and arbitrary security hassles. The officious flight crews. Bag fees, shrinking seats, shrieking infants.

Then, once you’re ready for takeoff, the verbatim diktats about turning off portable electronic devices. This last inconvenience has resisted scrutiny long enough.

The Federal Aviation Administration needs to determine exactly how dangerous devices such as iPods, Kindles and personal video games really are -- and be completely transparent with the public about its findings.

The FAA agreed on Dec. 1 to permit American Airlines pilots to use iPads in the cockpit, rather than paper flight charts and manuals, even during takeoff and landing. Yet passengers are still required to power down anything with an on-off switch.

Why the discrepancy?

The stated rationale is simply caution: The FAA says it doesn’t know with certainty whether such devices, which emit radio signals, can interfere with the plane’s instruments. Although the agency says it conducted a rigorous study before allowing the pilots to use their iPads, it hasn’t researched the effects of a large number of passengers doing the same.

In fact, the last time the FAA commissioned a study on whether passengers should be allowed to use electronic gadgets was in 2006, before iPads existed. It determined then that there was “insufficient information to support a wholesale change in policies.” So current policy continues, in which the FAA prohibits the use of any such devices below 10,000 feet, and allows airlines to determine when to permit them otherwise. No further studies are planned.

Significant Concerns

Mobile phones and BlackBerrys, which transmit strong signals at frequencies that could theoretically interfere with a plane’s communication and navigation equipment (and could disrupt cell networks on the ground), are a different story, but still instructive.

Their use is banned in flight by the Federal Communications Commission. A study by IEEE Spectrum argued that such devices “will, in all likelihood, someday cause an accident by interfering with critical cockpit instruments such as GPS receivers.”

That sounds alarming. But the study also found that, on average, someone uses a mobile phone at least once per flight, sometimes during takeoff and landing. Through September, 6.5 million domestic flights had taken off in the U.S. this year, carrying 480.5 million passengers. If mobile phones present a legitimate danger, and passengers are using them on every flight, we’re tolerating an enormous amount of risk.

Which leads to our more significant concern. No electronic device has ever been proved to cause an accident, and turning off your iPad during takeoff and landing would seem to be a small price to pay to make sure that record remains intact. But have you ever left yours turned on in your carry-on bag? No one checks, and nothing happens to you. If the danger is real, shouldn’t we start getting serious about preventing it?

After all, Transportation Security Administration agents spend hours intrusively patting down old ladies, inspecting tourists’ flip-flops and confiscating bottled water, but they habitually wave through all manner of electronic gadgets. Suppose a terrorist notices this putative gap in our security and switches on all his hidden Apple products before he boards?

The idea seems absurd, but either the devices are dangerous or they’re not.

Which is why it’s essential for the FAA to provide more definitive information. The agency must realize that “portable electronic devices” will continue to proliferate, and become ever more powerful and less visible.

If they pose a real threat, we need to rethink our security procedures. If they don’t, then please, for once, leave us in peace.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.