Without evidence of benefit, an intervention should not be presumed to be beneficial or safe.

- Rogue Medic

FAA Giving in to Science – Without Which the FAA Would Not Exist


The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is beginning to embrace science.

By today, many of us should be permitted to use most electronic devices during all parts of an airplane flight.

Airlines have been racing for weeks to be first, gathering paperwork and setting up working groups to study the issue.

JetBlue Airways Corp. and Delta Air Lines Inc. were ahead of the pack on Thursday, applying for approval within hours of the new guidelines. The two carriers said they hoped to begin allowing fliers to use devices from gate to gate by Friday.[1]


The FAA exists because of the ability of science to demonstrate the ability of humans to create a safe means of travel through the air. The FAA originally could have decided that the prospect of putting people in metal (or wood) structures, traveling at hundreds of miles an hour, and landing safely on the ground is not something that humans can be expected to do safely, but they didn’t.

The FAA could have adopted unscientific approaches to flight safety . . . . Well, they did with electronic devices. Much of what the FAA has done has been based on good evidence, but as with the use of cell phones in hospitals, the evidence of harm is lacking. Science without evidence is rarely good science. The FAA has not been foolish enough to follow the rest of the world into exclusive use of GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation.

The FAA first restricted the in-flight use of devices out of an abundance of caution, in part based on anecdotal evidence that emissions from devices interfered with pilot instruments.[1]


An abundance of caution is often what is used to justify rules that are actually based on an abundance of ignorance.

The use of backboards for potentially unstable spinal injuries are not based on evidence of benefit, but on an abundance of faith in expert opinion, that’s the way we’ve always done it, and wishful thinking. The same is true the rest of abandoned medical treatments and many that have not yet been abandoned.

Other safety policies have been extremely successful. However, these policies have evidence that they work.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s decision, its first big shift on electronic devices since it restricted their use in flight in 1966, caps years of debate over whether electronic emissions from devices can interfere with cockpit instruments.[1]


Almost half a century of restriction without evidence.

Anecdotal evidence should not be ignored, but should prompt research. If valid research does not support the caution inspired by the anecdotes, then we should ignore the anecdotes. If no research is considered to be necessary to determine the necessity of the restrictions, then we should ignore the restrictions.

Airline travel is extremely safe, but can be made to look less safe by looking at the statistics with the wrong perspective.

Image credit.
By the number of trips, airline travel does not appear to be safe, but we do not take airlines to travel to the grocery store. We take airlines to travel long distances.

Image credit.

Since airline travel is much faster than most other forms of travel, the safety per hour (per billion hours) is also not a good metric.

Image credit.

If I am traveling a few thousand miles, and I am only interested in the safety of that trip, there is no difficulty deciding the safest means of making that trip.

Travel by air is 8 times safer than travel by bus.

Travel by air is 12 times safer than travel by train.

Travel by air is 62 times safer than travel by automobile.

Travel by air is 1,084 times safer than walking. Although there would we health benefits to walking, the benefits would not come close to the much larger fatality rate.

The type of air travel also matters.

Image credit. Click on images to make them larger.

Fly and during the flight do work on an electronic device, or relax with an electronic device, but do not worry that you will crash the plane with a cellular phone. If you could do that, we would not even allow cellular phones in checked luggage.

Also see –

Do FAA restrictions on electronic devices make flying safer? Part II
Thu, 11 Apr 2013
Rogue Medic


[1] FAA Says Fliers Can Use Devices During All Phases of Flight
Wall Street Journal
By Jack Nicas and Andy Pazstor
Updated Oct. 31, 2013 8:00 p.m. ET



  1. I worked in the airline business for nearly ten years prior to becoming a Paramedic. During that time, I had the opportunity to work beside people of various amounts of responsibility in the commercial airline industry, in the FAA, chief pilots, flight instructors, etc. I was told, universally, that the reasons behind not allowing the use of electronic devices during takeoff and landing had nothing to do with potential electronic interference, as most of us are told. The reasons (I was told) are actually because takeoff and landing are the most dangerous parts of the flight, and the crew did not want the passengers distracted by their electronic devices in the event of an accident and subsequent emergency evacuation.

    I am not at all speaking for the validity of those concerns, but that’s what I’ve been told. Anecdotal, I know!