Passenger Detained By Police For GPS Device

September 9, 2012

in Attendant & Pilot Stories

Flights From Hell received the following correspondence from David Howe. In it Mr. Howe states that a US Airways flight attendant erroneously ordered him to shut off his GPS receiver. He says that he turned it off, and then afterwards informed the FA that the device’s use was allowed by another air carrier and that it didn’t pose a safety risk. Howe claims that the FA, embarrassed by her mistake and angry at his comments, overreacted and retaliated by notifying law enforcement that he refused to follow instructions. As he was deboarding the plane Howe says that he was detained and questioned by police, then taken into a station. Howe lists compensatory demands, including an apology from the airline, suspension and reprimand of the FA, refund of his fare, and expungement of information in his record. The correspondence, which is written in a press release format, is posted immediately below verbatim (except where a deletion is noted):

US Airways Flight Attendant makes Mistake over use of Garmin GPS during Flight. Error Results in a False Incident Report and Detention against a U.S. Citizen and Passenger.

September 1, 2012 – David E. Howe, a 43 year-old resident of northeast Ohio, is the victim of a reactionary flight attendant who notified law enforcement with misinformation after she determined that her demand to discontinue a GPS receiver was made in error during a non-stop flight from Charlotte, NC, to Akron Canton, OH. Rather than acknowledge her error that the passenger was using a prohibited device that was, in fact, permitted for use above 10,000 feet, she instead notified law enforcement that the passenger refused to follow instructions and may have continued to use the GPS receiver while at the approved altitude.

It’s now known that GPS receivers are approved for use on US Airways flights above altitudes of 10,000 feet, according to the US Airways onboard printed safety placard and in-flight magazine.

Despite the flight attendant’s mistake, data stored in the Garmin GPS receiver has since been recovered and downloaded by computer engineers. The data unequivocally proves that the passenger discontinued use when instructed. The data reveal the receiver was in use above 20,000 feet.

“The flight attendant was in the aisle and saw the Garmin GPS receiver,” explained David Howe. “I fly frequently and have used GPS receivers in plain sight during approved times for years and without ever a request from a flight attendant to discontinue use. I’ve witnessed other passengers using GPS receivers. I’ve never heard an objection from a flight attendant or crew member. Last week, I was flying on a Southwest flight from Cleveland, OH, to Las Vegas, NV. I read in Southwest’s ‘Spirit’ in-flight publication that GPS receivers are approved at altitude above 10k feet. United Airlines has the same information. Southwest and United Airlines are governed by the same FAA that regulates every other U.S. airline, including US Airways.”

“On this flight the attendant ordered I turn off the device while we were flying at approved altitudes for permitted electronic equipment. ‘GPS are not allowed in flight!’, barked the attendant from across the aisle. Instead of professionally and courteously advising me… ‘Sir, I apologize that you must discontinue the use of your GPS…it’s my understanding this device is not approved for use during flight,’ she instead barked the order,” explained Howe. “Although I didn’t appreciate her tone and attitude, I nevertheless complied and immediately turned off the receiver and placed it into its storage case. I then stowed it into my computer bag and never once removed it again during the flight. I also replied to the attendant that ‘Southwest allows GPS receivers and they are not a flight or safety hazard.’ She replied that ‘…we’re not Southwest!’ Other passengers heard the exchange. I then reiterated that GPS receivers ‘…pose no flight or safety hazards.’ Immediately following our exchange, I obtained the printed material available in the seat-back pocket. I couldn’t find an indication that GPS receivers were prohibited. The instruction did not exist. The flight attendant was wrong and she made a mistake.”

The Garmin GPS receiver was activated after the captain indicated an altitude of 10,000 feet, when devices other than “portable televisions, radio transmitters, or remote control toys”, are approved for use (this is directly from the US Airways magazine that is provided to every passenger, August 2012 edition page 124: According to the carrier’s own in-flight magazine, ‘other portable electronic devices may be used except during taxi, takeoff, and landing’.

“Based on the carrier’s own terms, this must include GPS receivers among its list of ‘other portable electronic devices’,” Howe stated. “GPS receives are not televisions, they’re not radio transmitters, and they’re not remote control toys,” continued Howe. ‘Therefore, they must align under US Airways’ ‘other portable electronic devices’ classification.”

“And I shouldn’t have to assume if a device is prohibited,” continued Howe. “It’s the duty of the airline – perhaps even the FAA – to tell me. Moreover, as someone who paid US Airways the full fare for the seat I was occupying, I don’t think it’s appropriate (or legal) for a flight attendant to arbitrarily decide what devices can and cannot be used during approved flight times. The FAA should indicate for the flying public what devices are approved and flight attendants should be permitted to only enforce prohibitions on devices not approved.”

“Remarkably, the aircraft’s seat-back safety placard also clearly indicates what devices are prohibited with illustrated graphics. On the safety placard provided on this flight and specific to this particular aircraft, GPS receivers are NOT among the prohibited devices. GPS are commonly used by the public and have been for many years now. There’s no excuse why the information isn’t there, if it’s intended to be. The US Airways corporate website contains no indication that GPS receivers are prohibited either. Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and other U.S. carriers specifically indicate – with precise pictorials and descriptive language contained in onboard passenger materials – that GPS receivers are permitted at approved altitude.”

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has no restriction on the use of GPS receivers aboard commercial U.S. aircraft.

“Although the flight attendant’s misinformation did not result in an arrest, I was detained and questioned at the airport. As a result of this incident, there is a public record. I must appear in civil court to have the misinformation expunged from the record. And this is the result of one flight attendant’s simple error in judgment and overreaction,” said Howe. “I think she felt embarrassed. She didn’t want to acknowledge that she issued an inappropriate order to discontinue what is an approved device.”

“I also believe she was angry because I replied with statements of fact about Southwest and the safety of GPS receivers in general,” said Howe. “She felt her only response was to retaliate and intimidate me by having the police detain and question me once on the ground. She panicked when she realized there was no prohibition against GPS receivers. The claim that I wasn’t following instructions was a diversion of her mistake.”

“I want the record to state in no uncertain terms that I’ve done nothing wrong. I did exactly what I was instructed. I was detained and confronted by law enforcement while de-boarding the aircraft.”

“When I was initially detained and questioned, I was feet away from the boarding door on the aircraft. The deputy was there, along with the captain who came out with a thick three-ringed binder. He wanted to justify that GPS receivers are not permitted. I was surprised by this because no passenger would ever have access to a pilot’s fight book. I asked to board the plane so that I could show the deputy and the pilot the information available to me. The deputy refused my request and stated that I was not allowed to return to the plane. I accepted his order. I asked him to go and get the material. He refused. I asked the captain to get the information (the US Airways in-flight magazine and safety placard). He ignored the request. Both refused to get the information.”

“The officer directed me to a station with another deputy. I was asked to provide my driver’s license and confirm my home address. I provided the information. I provided my business card and contact information. I advised the officer that I routinely work with law enforcement in my professional capacity.” (
“During this same time, my mother called my cell phone. She was wondering where I was. She and my father were waiting inside the airport to provide me transportation home. I answered and advised her I was with the police. I told her I’d meet her as soon as I could. I asked the deputy again to return to the aircraft and provide me the printed material. He would not. I was finally released without further incident. I was provided the deputy’s name and give a report number.”

“When I met my parents, I decided to go back to the deputies’ station and make a final request to obtain the printed material. I wanted to take a photo of the safety placard to prove that GPS receivers are not prohibited devices. I wanted to obtain a copy of the in-flight magazine. I felt compelled to obtain the information. I was concerned there would be an attempt to change the passenger material and remove the placards. Why wouldn’t they let me review the material with them? It was a simple and reasonable request.”

“The police station was behind the security checkpoint. I was met by a TSA agent who had to relay my message to the deputies. After a few minutes, the deputy met my parents and me. I informed him that I was requesting to have the US Airways seat-back passenger information. I advised him that my mother and father would act as witnesses. He acknowledged this but nevertheless refused to obtain the information. He stated that this was not his responsibility. He said I must return to the US Airways ticket counter and request the material. I returned to the US Airways counter. No one was there. At another counter, an attendant from United Airlines instructed me to knock on the door. I knocked on the door. No one came. I knocked again. No one answered. My parents and I (and my 91 year old grandmother waiting in the car) left the airport and went to dinner to discuss the situation. I was angry and outraged.”

“While at the restaurant, I contacted US Airways. I reached a supervisor and explained everything. I was transferred to another manager. I spoke with Karen [last name deleted by editor], a US Airways customer service manager. Karen was sympathetic. She apologized on behalf of US Airways. She stated: ‘…although I’m not a technical person…I certainly wouldn’t consider a GPS a safety risk.’ I thanked her. I told her I shared her sentiment. I advised her that an apology was not sufficient, however. She understood. She indicated disbelief that the pilot and the deputies would not provide the seat-back passenger information. She did not understand. She said I could order a copy. I told her I couldn’t understand why the pilot would confront me with a flight manual, but would refuse to provide me the information otherwise available and indicated for passengers. Karen agreed none of this made sense. I explained my expectations and requested she escalate this to senior US Airways management, preferably the CEO of the organization.”

I demanded the following:

  •  A written apology from an officer or senior manager of US Airways, preferably the CEO, acknowledging that I had done nothing wrong and that the flight attendant made a mistake and is responsible;
  •  A 3-day suspension and reprimand of the flight attendant and a permanent notation in her employment file regarding this incident;
  •  An acknowledgement from US Airways that they will work with the FAA to create a clear and conspicuous list of approved/unapproved devices;
  •  A request for US Airways to update its safety and in-flight materials;
  •  A full refund of the fare;
  •  Expungement of the information and a supplement provided to law enforcement that US Airways and its employee were responsible.

“On Thursday, August 30, 2012, I received a call from a US Airways customer relations manager who identified herself as Susie. She and I spoke at length. She apologized on behalf of US Airways. She stated she too would have been outraged had she experienced this same mistreatment. She listened intently. She was kind and professional. She advised that the flight attendant didn’t follow procedure. I restated my expectations of US Airways. She read each back and indicated I should expect a follow up call. She apologized again and we hung up.”

“On two separate occasions, I spoke with Sergeant Fanelly of the Summit County Sherriff’s office. Fanelly is the supervisor in charge of the deputies at the airport. He was professional and cooperative. He indicated that I could file a supplement to the report. I filed the supplement that same day. On the second occasion when I spoke with Sergeant Fanelly, I told him that I was relieved to have finally obtained the US Airways magazine. It exonerated me unequivocally. It proved the flight attendant made a mistake. I read to Fanelly the exact language contained in the US Airways magazine. We discussed GPS receivers and whether they are radio transmitters. He was under the impression that the device is a radio transmitter. It is not.”

According to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, GPS receivers do not transmit. That may explain why the FAA does not restrict their use on aircraft today.

The following article from the Smithsonian provides information about GPS receivers:

“This was an unnecessary and unfortunate situation. It resulted when a flight attendant made a mistake and overreacted. I do not hold a grudge against her but I do hope she will be more thoughtful in the future. I am making US Airways accountable and I expect they will be good corporate citizens and do the right thing,” Howe concluded.

David E Howe

Update 09/11/2012

Mr. Howe emailed Flights From Hell this correspondence that he received:

Dear Mr. Howe:

The Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division has forwarded your recent correspondence regarding the use of GPS on US Airways flights. We appreciate the opportunity to reply to your concerns.

On behalf of US Airways and our express carrier PSA Airlines, I would like to apologize for the difficulties that occurred during flight 2264.

At this time GPS devices are not permitted to be used on US Airways flights. Per information in our Inflight magazines (p124 Aug/p122 Sept) it states that radio transmitters are not allowed. We are currently conducting some analysis of some of the other carriers to see if we can/cannot allow the use of GPS devices from a regulatory perspective. If this policy changes, the magazine information should be updated.

The experience you described is certainly not indicative of the level of service we are striving to provide our customers. We would like to take this opportunity to apologize. The importance of professionalism and efficiency is continually stressed to our employees. Your observations will be forwarded to the Sr. Manager of Inflight, to ensure excellence in customer service is maintained. Additionally, this incident will be discussed with the employee and handled internally. Because of the right to privacy under the federal Privacy Act, we are unable to provide information regarding the outcome of our review process.

The Department of Transportation does not mediate individual consumer complaints but does forward the information on to the airline for resolution and response to the customers. For a more expedited response in the future, you may wish to contact our office directly. Please forward your concerns via e-mail directly to or via U.S. Mail to: US Airways Customer Relations RWB-CNA, 4000 E, Sky Harbor Blvd., Phoenix AZ 85034.

Mr. Howe, your business is important to us. We feel confident that US Airways can continue to meet your future travel needs.

Edie [Last name deleted by editor]
DOT Specialist, Customer Relations
US Airways Corporate Office

Case: US-12HOWE-J50I11-D1T


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

mel September 9, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Really? You have to be one entitled fool to post this “press release”. You are fine nothing happened to you. Live your life and get over it. Your making a big fuss over nothing. This is a perfect example of “white people’s proplems”. Take the energy you put into this and stand up for real injustices in the world.


Dirk September 10, 2012 at 12:02 pm

mel you are one of the "white people's proplems"


Michael September 8, 2014 at 9:59 am

What does skin color have to do with anything?


Rich September 9, 2012 at 10:27 pm

He now has a police record. Regardless of whether there was a conviction or not this could impact on future employment among other things. He did state in his article that he did work for police agencies.


Gregg September 9, 2012 at 11:15 pm

Not sure what the legal ramifications are regarding having such a record (e.g. extra screening by TSA?), but if I was innocent I'd want to have my record cleared.


mel September 10, 2012 at 11:47 pm

He was not charged with anything. So he does not have a record. Lifes not fair. He should move on. Life is to short for this petty crap. Everyone has bad days. He is putting to much energy in to this. Get over it. So what the fa was ignorant. He just want to be right and valadation that he is smartet than the fa
So ok you are smarter than her
Cut her some slack man. In the sceam of things this nothing
Come on dude, she didn’t know anything about the gps and her job consist of dealing with unhappy folks all day
Lets cut her some slack
Its time we all start chilling out on each other
You could make real change in the world with the passion u put into this i can see u could really help ur fellow man
Find a real injustice and figjt the good fight.


Kate September 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I can certainly understand being upset about this, but this seems to go way beyond that. You need to let this go. Sometimes airline personnel overreact-that doesn't make it okay, but it's a part of air travel in a post 9/11 world. And I do agree that the FA did grossly overreact, but this press release and everything is just too much. I also find it interesting that you don't demand any apology from any of the airport personnel/security, seeing as how they wouldn't let you retrieve/review the in-flight information. Sounds like they had a hand in what pissed you off so much, so why is your anger all directed at the airline?


Gregg September 11, 2012 at 10:32 pm

David Howe's post has been updated to include correspondence that he received from US Airways.


Yomama September 14, 2012 at 6:08 pm

David, please do NOT let this go. Please follow this through and make sure that those who misuse and abuse their power are punished. Otherwise, they will never learn and will keep acting the same way or worse. Thank you for being persistent and doing this work for ALL of us who have to fly and/or deal with police… or may have to, some day.


TP September 20, 2012 at 11:41 pm

david, you seem to have handled this very well, I probably would have not been as calm as you. Some people just provide shiity services, and deserve punishment for abusing their positions and power, going as far as reporting you to law enforcement that just crossed the line. Of course we were not there to see the situation, to see if you were throwing a big fuss to have ticked her off enough for this, however, the whole situation reflects lack of responsibilities in well all parties. If only she read the flyer, if only he allowed you to get that magazine, all in all very happy this is over for you and thanks for sharing.

One more thing, Mel, pls just stfu fool.


Frank September 27, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Mel, are you that flight attendant?


flossiesdoll September 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm

This man's demands are ridiculous. Yes, he should get an apology from the airline. Yes, the flight attendant might need some additional training. But he has no right to demand a suspension or a reprimand – it is up to her employer to determine how they deal with her. And a full refund for the flight? He must be having a laugh.


relaxedflyer October 8, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Dave, Get a life!!! Hahahahhaa! I'd like to see you reincarnated as a young single mother in India. You and your high and mighty GPS receiver. Oh, the horror, the horror of the horrible flight attendant!!! Just think what the rest of your day could have been if you had politely turned off your device, taken a nice nap, looked out at the beauty of the world beneath you and gently handed the flight attendant the flyer at the end of the flight, pointing out your receiver was legal to use and you hoped another passenger wouldn't have to forgo the use of their GPS at 20,000' in the future.


Patty October 21, 2012 at 11:38 am

Maybe I'm missing something…Why would someone need a GPS on a flight? I mean, why would they need it out and playing with it? Does it play games? Mine just sits on the dashboard and tells me where to turn.


David September 11, 2014 at 3:15 pm

Mine tells me where I am, whether or not I am driving.
On an airliner it lets me know the identity of features I am seeing, and to look out for particular features (e.g. The Grand Canyon) I'd like to see. It lets me know when we are holding and how. It lets me know aspects of flight operations, such as Top-Of-Descent. (I've done some software work for Air Traffic Control, so this is a professional interest.)

More to the point, I agree with Mr. Howe. As air travelers, we are asked to put up with too much petty tyranny. Imagine how badly restaurant service would decline if interfering with a food service crew were a federal crime. Although this is a "post 9/11 world" (a disaster caused by airline and administration rules — imagine if the passengers had been armed with more than a food cart) that does not excuse petty indignities.

I don't "need" a GPS, or a neck pillow, or in-flight reading materials. Those are my choices, and if the airline or the regulators want to deny these to me, it is up to them to make the case that there is a reason.


Walter November 18, 2012 at 6:08 pm

fascinatingly, even in the last letter you got, they keep talking about radio transmitters. "Per information in our Inflight magazines (p124 Aug/p122 Sept) it states that radio transmitters are not allowed."
Maybe there should be a sticker on GPS RECEIVERS that says "This is not a TRANSMITTER, it is a RECEIVER, and if you don't understand the difference you have no business being on a plane."


Vince March 27, 2013 at 3:21 pm

The problem here is not that this man was told to put away his GPS, or that the flight attendant did so in an unprofessional way, but rather that the situation was escalated to law enforcement without justification. If the flight crew can't handle a few cross words without bringing armed force to bear, there exists a serious problem.


Dick December 22, 2013 at 8:11 pm

The use of portable electronic devices on airplanes operated under IFR are prohibited per 14 CFR Part 91.21. Airlines may make exceptions if they deem that it does not interfere with the safety of the flight. If the company or crew didn't authorize it then 14 CFR part 91.21 prevails and it is prohibited. The government makes these laws and heavily fines air carriers for violating them. In other words, get a life… Or vote with your wallet and fly someone else.


Scott January 4, 2014 at 6:13 pm

The fact a device is or is not a transmitter doesn't matter. All electronic devices, especially high sensitivity receivers emit radio frequency interference. A poorly designed receiver can actually blank another receiver next to it. The process of "mixing" the signal in the receiver generates harmonic emissions as a byproduct.

A flight attendant, not a pilot is trained in RF engineering, hence the decision is left to the technical folks at the airline.

Focusing on the attitude of the flight attendant and the involvement of law enforcement is appropriate. Where you lost credibility with me was the requesting of specific censorship of the FA (discipline will never be publicly discussed).

As and RF/Electrical Engineer and a Pilot I still follow the rules and leave my gear off below FL100. I do enjoy using my aviation navigation, traffic and weather software on my tablet on commercial flights. This utilizes a GPS and a ADSB RX. Nobody has ever said anything to me when I use it in flight.


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