AIN Blog: 'Captain' Baldwin Breaks the Code

 - December 16, 2011, 6:35 AM
Alec Baldwin by David Shankbone
Alec Baldwin is forcing the airlines and the FAA to answer some tough questions. (Photo: David Shankbone)

Oh, Alec! You’ve gone and done it now. When you got kicked off that American Airlines flight on December 6 because you didn’t want to turn off your phone and stop playing Words With Friends and got mad at the flight attendant and slammed the bathroom door, well, you exposed the airlines’ dirty little secret, didn’t you?

The secret? Not only do they have no idea whether personal electronic devices cause problems to aircraft electronics, they also know that enough flights have flown safely with a lot of devices inadvertently left on that there obviously isn’t a problem. I’m not the first to point this out; Nick Bilton did so ably in his New York Times blog post.

But you, you American treasure—Alec Baldwin—with your rude behavior (which we secretly admire; aren’t we all tired of the flying police constantly telling us to do this, that and if you don’t mind I need to feel you up before you get on that airplane), you let the cat out of the bag and are forcing the airlines and the FAA to answer some tough questions.

Like, why is it that the pilots get to use iPads—during takeoff and landing no less—and we have to turn ours off? Aren’t the pilots a lot closer, umm, right next to those critical electronics? If iPads are so heinous, wouldn’t the FAA have told pilots that they can’t use them to read charts and look up stuff in their manuals? (I wonder if the FAA specifically says that pilots can’t read the iPad version of their favorite magazine or newspaper while cruising along, sipping a fresh cup of coffee? When everything goes right, flying, especially long distances, can be pretty darn boring.)

And why, if personal electronic devices could cause so much trouble, haven’t we seen any evidence of that? No crashed airplanes, no landing on the wrong runway, no “Whoops, I meant to turn right and the airplane turned left.” Nope, pilots do all that stuff by themselves plenty often; they haven’t even tried to blame personal devices as far as I’ve seen, reading accident reports over many years.

So, Alec, thank you, by the way, for your cute appearance on Saturday Night Live (December 11, it’s still available on Hulu, about 37 minutes in), pretending to be American Airlines Captain Steve Rogers apologizing to…Alec Baldwin. (FYI, you were wearing a first officer’s uniform with three stripes; captains get four, but no biggie, you were still pretty funny.) And you (playing the captain) said, “What harm would it do to let him keep playing his game? Not any game, mind you, but a word game for smart people.”

What harm indeed? It’s time for the airline industry and the FAA to acknowledge once and for all that an iPhone or iPad or smartphone in airplane mode is safe. And that having a phone or Kindle on your lap during takeoff or landing is as safe as reading a heavy hardback book, which isn’t prohibited.

By the way, I did ask the FAA why it’s OK for pilots to have iPads in the cockpit but not for passengers to turn theirs on during takeoff and landing. The FAA believes that the tests it requires of the airlines, including testing iPads with specific aircraft, plus allowing only a limited number of devices for pilots is much safer than a few hundred passengers all watching movies or reading ebooks at the same time.

Well, sorry, has anyone ever tested that? I’d like to know. And as Alec Baldwin/Captain Steve Rogers said on Saturday Night Live, “Would you really get on an airplane that flew 30,000 feet in the air if you thought one Kindle switch could take it down? Come on! It’s a cruel joke perpetrated by the airline industry. And we would have gotten away with it, but Alec Baldwin was just too smart for us. He really is something.”

Yes, you really are something, Alec. But, dude! Aren’t you like, rich? Why would you even think about flying on the airlines? Haven’t you heard about private jets? Wouldn’t you like to try one?

Call me. I’ll hook you up. And guess what? You can play Words With Friends or slam the bathroom door as hard as you want in your own jet.


To answer your questions, let's turn to a real pilot.'s Patrick Smith.

What I have noticed myself is that it's not the phone being in airplane mode, but rather the phone Being on and sending and receiving data. It is a noticeable sound pilots can hear that is distracting. If many passengers were to have their data mode in use, it creates even a larger interference with the ATC radios. The notion the iPad or other device would all by itself bring down an airplane is rediculous. The phones off issue is to prevent this distraction to pilots during critical phases of flight; takeoff and landings. Blackberry phones using data are just as noisy with regards to the interference.

ARINC 429 Twisted Shielded Pair of wires for communication paths, do the job of preventing interference from other system avionics communication and data transfer from interfering with the engine FADAC system. So, when you flush the toilet and the cabin system controller activates the vacuum toilet, the engine does not spool up to high or approach idle. These communication paths cross, or are aligned a few times in the wiring bundles, and the shielding must meet industry standards or be verified by engineering tests and data that interference is mitigated.

This is a farce perpetuated by ignorance. One day we will all wonder why we were all so scared of cell phones and laptops.

The cell phone industry has the greatest risk to its cellular system, if multiple passengers leave wireless devices on during takeoff and landing. The acquisition of the closest cell tower and the skipping of cell signals as it attempts to find the closest one can interfere with cell service more than the aircraft communication. A single cell phone at 5 thousand feet could congest multiple cell towers within a few seconds as it attempts to acquire the closest one.

RVSM in cruise, when the FGC, (Autopilot) is mandatory, and the crew is less focused on the flight. 1K separation and 1000+ knots of closure rate of two targets. This seems to me a more critical phase of flight. Aircell now Go-Go has everyone up and running WiFi in the cabin, only above 10K, why no concern?

Yeah but there are more reasons for not having electronics on and what not. Like people not paying attention, getting unruly, etc. And whose to say some jackass won't fashion a way to interfere with the comm of the pilots anyway once everyone can have devices powered on whenever? Ya heard of them laser pointin' bunch?

As an experienced business jet captain, I can assure all of you that cell phones do interfere in flight, especially on or near the ground. Often, when I or one of my crewmate forgets to turn off the device, we hear the unmistakable antenna search static noise in our headsets. Once, I was about to intercept a localizer and the FGC (flight guidance computer) went right through the runway axis, this just happened as we heard that familiar static noise, after inquiring with the passengers, two of them had their phones left on. Please make an effort even if you don’t understand the implications.

Guess no one remembers reading about Boeing holding up deliveries of new 737's a couple of months back because yes indeed they discovered that certain PFD's and ND's (the glass tubes that display all of the instruments) would blank out when the iPad, etc was activated in the cockpit! The end result the FAA mandated more testing to identify which displays were suspectible and banned use of the electronic devices until the testing was complete. Carriers had to replace the displays before being allowed to continue with iPad development. The problem is there is no electronic device industry standards thus a manufacturer or airline would have to purchase any and all types of devices to determine IF it caused interference. Will they cause a crash at 35000 ft, doubt it - but do you want all of the displays going blank at 100 ft on takeoff or landing because of Angry Birds?

Yes 90% of the current cell/ipads probably don't cause any problems with aircraft electronics. However it's that 10%, some older models, that could be problems. The FAA and FCC lean towards the most conservative and require all units off during the most critical (close to the ground) time of flight.

No one can say with 100% assurance that all cell phones or other entertainment devices are from from interference with navigation, various monitoring devices on engines of other control surfaces, or communications equipment. Most little boys understand that. I'm surprised that Aleccy didn't. Guess he wants to play with his toys even if there may be some risk involved. I have over eleven thousand hours of flying time and still listen to the flight attendants.

"No one can say with 100% assurance that all cell phones or other entertainment devices are from from interference with navigation..."

I absolutely agree, and I think most people miss this point.

I am certain that the industry and the FAA know that the chances of a problems occurring due to a personal electronic device is slim to nil. But technology changes a lot quicker than the FAA can test them for safety.
So its much easier and less costly to slightly inconvenience someone for a short period of time then to test every single possible permutation of personal electronic device and airplane configuration. If there is a problem due to interference, its not like it will be obvious that is was due to a cell phone or iPad. From a risk mitigation perspective its just easier to eliminate it as a factor.

Also, if in the 1 in a million chance that an incident did occur, if it were due to the industry allowing usage, one guess on who would take the heat for lax safety standards.

This whole thing is made worse by some peoples' twisted sense of entitlement, now personified by Alec Baldwin's behaviour.

The debate whether PED's interfere with aircraft systems will continue. What I have not seen raised here is that Mr. Baldwin’s behavior was inappropriate regardless of whether he believes his phone was doing any harm or harm. Bottom line is the flight attendants are doing their job and part of that job is enforcing the FAA Regs. And regardless if you agree with them or not it should be common courtesy to follow their instructions. Unfortunately certain people believe they are above others and have an elitist opinion of themselves … and not all of them are celebrities. He had no right to be rude.

I agree with John.
Failure to obey a uniformed crew member is a violation, and should be prosecuted.

Come'on ya all...let's go back to "the good 'ol days" when "sex was safe and flying was dangerous". Where is your sense of adventure?

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