You probably read the headline, which made the news more because of the students’ baseless allegation that they we’re removed from their flight because they were Jewish. (Read the story: click here)
But let’s go beyond that smokescreen and look at the real issue from a pilot’s viewpoint–because it was a pilot’s responsibility to have them removed for non-compliance with crewmember instructions.
There are two issues here: electronic interference from handheld devices in flight, and equally important, compliance with federal regulations and flight crew instructions. First, let’s look at electronic devices and their possible effect on a flight.
Let’s go to the heart of the matter: landings. Why? Because this is the phase of flight during which the instrument guidance is arguably to most vital: you’re dealing with limited or practically speaking, no visibility as you attempt to land (versus taking off, when you’re climbing away from the terrain) and are therefore very dependent on your instruments for crucial guidance about pitch, roll descent rate and altitude.
Pilots are dependent upon the information gleaned from an array of very sensitive electronic signals generated both on the ground and on board, which provide critical safety and navigation parameters for an approach. Would a handheld device somewhere in the cabin affect these signals or worse, put out signals of it’s own that would interfere with aircraft systems?
Engineers say “maybe,” which is secret engineer (god love ‘em, they’ve built us some fantastic air machines) code for “we can’t rule that out.” Do you as a passenger want that “ruled out” as your flight approaches the concrete on instruments at 160 mph?
A typical counter argument we often hear is this: “Sure, fly-by-wire (meaning, no direct cables to controls but rather, electronic servos) aircraft like the Airbus could be susceptible, but your average passenger jet actually does have cable controls, which are not subject to electronic interference.”
But the problem is, even those aircraft with direct control linkage, when operating on autopilot, are then controlled by servos that are susceptible to electronic interference. A stray signal can–and has–created a spurious autopilot input and when aircraft (fly-by-wire or control cable) are within feet of the ground, that interference can be disastrous.
Big picture answer, from the pilot perspective: we work hard to eliminate all variables in the safe approach to poor ceiling and visibility landings. We HAVE to ensure the validity of the data that substitutes for our own visual cues in order to land in marginal flight conditions, or we simply can’t–or won’t–land.
Which brings us to issue number two: compliance with federal regulations and flight crew instructions. And let’s get back to the youth group in question. Complaince is a binary–you either do, or don’t. There’s no room for “we think it’s okay to have our cellphones on in flight–so we won’t comply.”
They clearly don’t understand the binary nature of compliance or more importantly, the equally black and white nature of my options as a pilot, given the circumstances: I have to ensure the flight is operated in full compliance with all federal regulations (“cell phones and personal electronic devices off for taxi-out and take-off”), just as I have to–as noted above–be confident in the integrity of the instrumentation upon which I base our ability to safely fly.
To make matters worse, albeit simpler, in today’s air travel environment, the issue of compliance is even more cut-and-dried than ever. Used to be, if we had an non-compliance issue, I could personally go back and explain the situation and gain the compliance we need to satisfy the ironclad regulatory and safety requirements mentioned above. Those days ended on September 11th, 2001. Now, pilots will by regulation (if not common sense) stay on the flight deck and simply enforce whatever the cabin crew requires to ensure compliance, period. Rule one in that dilemma is don’t take off with a problem you don’t want to handle again in the air or on landing.
There again is the simple binary: comply, or don’t fly.
I don’t wish the kids involved in this incident anything other than better experiences in the future, although given the regulatory and safety explanations above, I can’t find it anything other than disappointing that some of them would try to make this an ethnic or racial incident.
In fact, summer time is all about student travel, often in large groups, and most are very well-behaved. I’m glad to be taking them on the first or last leg of their adventure. But maybe the primary lesson that needs to come before–and during–the educational experience is one regarding mandatory compliance with legitimate instructions: comply, or don’t fly.
And now they know why.