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The History of Electronics Bans on Airplanes

Tyler Suiters, Vice President of Communications, Consumer Technology Association (CTA)
Here is a brief history of U.S. in-flight electronics bans and CTA’s role in working with the government to keep air passengers safe and connected.

Although the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)™ recognizes and supports the government’s priority to protect American lives, policies that directly affect consumers — such as the recently enacted Department of Homeland Security’s ban on passengers’ technology devices in-flight — must balance legitimate national security concerns with our personal rights and fundamental freedoms.

Here is a brief history of U.S. in-flight electronics bans and CTA’s role in working with the government to keep air passengers safe and connected.

  • In the early 1960s, passengers started using portable electric razors in-flight. In response, the Radio Technical Committee for Aeronautics (RTCA) — now an advisory body to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — composed of airplane pilots, manufacturers and others concluded that razors and other devices were safe for use on planes. The RTCA later determined that cell phones, which emit and receive signals, were also safe.
  • In 1988, a bomb concealed in a radio cassette recorder exploded on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The U.S. federal government reaction was to implement intensive screening of all portable electronics from airplanes — laptop computers, cassette recorders and other electronics equipment — whether carried aboard by passengers or checked as luggage. At the time, CTA (known then as the Electronic Industries Association) said a technology-specific ban wouldn’t make Americans any safer because the explosive — set to detonate at a certain altitude — also could have been hidden inside anything from a perfume bottle to a book. CTA made this point and the government lifted the ban. 
  • In 1992, TIME magazine reported an increasing number of “incidents” linking electronics devices to navigational problems on flights. CTA reviewed all relevant incident reports filed with the FAA over a 10-year period and found that virtually none of these reports involved any safety problem involving a device. Rather, these reports showed that about once a year, a pilot thought his or her navigational instruments could have been affected by carry-on electronics.
  • Also in 1992, The New York Times ran a front page article, similar to TIME’s, leading with the story of a plane that had to change course on approach to a New York City airport because of navigational problems presumed to be caused by a passenger’s use of electronics products. CTA asserted there were few incidents and zero evidence that passenger use of non-transmitting products affected airplane navigational systems. Meanwhile, the RTCA met with Boeing and McDonnel Douglas to clarify that there was no in-flight navigational risk posed by passengers’ handheld electronics.
  • After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, concerns arose about electronics devices on board planes, especially after the failed Detroit “shoe bomber” incident confirmed that terrorists would be creative in smuggling explosives onto airplanes. Even though misguided perceptions continued about the safety of allowing consumer electronics on board flights, CTA (known then as the Consumer Electronics Association) decided not to object to the federal government’s and airline industry’s position that passengers should not use any devices below an altitude of 10,000 feet.
  • In 2005, CTA led the technology industry’s successful effort to facilitate the disabling and enabling of transmitters in wireless devices and provide common symbols and terminology — what we now know as ”airplane mode,” available on smartphones around the world. CTA’s Portable Electronic Devices Working Group included more than 50 representatives of wireless product and component manufacturers, airlines and flight attendant and pilot organizations.
  • In 2007, Transportation Security Administration added a separate screening for laptops, cameras and other larger electronics.
  • After consecutive terrorist attacks involving laptop explosions on board Western Africa flights in 2016, U.S.-bound travelers from 10 specific airports in the Middle East no longer are allowed to carry on technology devices larger than a smartphone.
  • On June 28, 2017, in reaction to what it called a “spider web” of terrorist threats to commercial aviation, the Department of Homeland Security announced enhanced screening of passengers and electronic devices as well as heightened security standards for aircraft from 105 countries and approximately 280 airports.

CTA will continue to work with the federal government to keep air passengers safe. The national discussion on balancing personal freedoms and successful security measures must continue.