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FAA Reconsiders Airplane Mobile Device Ban

Federal Aviation Administration study may change airlines' requirement that passengers turn off electronic devices for significant portions of flights.

Soon, you may not need to "turn off all portable electronic devices" before takeoff. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Monday it would form a government-industry group to study whether consumer electronics can be safely used on planes.

The near ubiquity of mobile devices appears to have forced the hand of the Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, to reconsider the long-standing policy of requiring consumer electronics to be turned off during flights. "With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest," Transportation secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

The FAA will form a group of government and industry stakeholders to study which technologies can be safely be used on planes and during which stages of flights, as well as whether adherence to technological standards is necessary to ensure the safe use of electronic devices aboard planes.

"Safety is our highest priority, and we must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight," LaHood said. However, not all uses will be part of the study: it will not include research on whether voice calls can be safely made during flight.

[ Certain smartphones will soon have a crucial role in the sky. See Android Smartphones to Power NASA Satellites. ]

The study group will be formed this fall, and will carry out its study over the next six months. However, a statement from acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta indicated that the FAA may not make policy as a result of the study, but rather may leave it up to carriers and operators themselves to do so. "We're looking for information to help air carriers and operators decide if they can allow more widespread use of electronic devices in today's aircraft," Huerta said.

Current FAA regulations prohibit the use of electronic devices on flights, with limited exceptions for certain types of devices. However, carriers themselves are allowed to make their own exceptions if they determine that the electronic devices in question will not interfere with airplane communication and navigation systems. A favorable result from the upcoming study could open the floodgates of such exceptions.

The roots of FAA rules banning personal electronic devices on flights can be traced back as far as 1966, when rules were promulgated that prevented FM radio receivers from being used by airplane passengers, and the guidelines were most recently updated in 2006.

Earlier this year, FAA officials said that the agency planned to revisit the use of personal electronics on airplanes after bringing together consumer electronics and aviation stakeholders like manufacturers and pilots to help facilitate further study on the issue, but this is the first tangible step in that direction.

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Rob Berra
Rob Berra,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/5/2012 | 2:42:02 PM
re: FAA Reconsiders Airplane Mobile Device Ban
This is a case of "better safe than sorry." To my knowledge, there are no documented cases of cell phone use endangering aircraft, but it is difficult to test every possible scenario. The chance of a terrorist being able to actively interfere with an aircraft's operations sufficiently to cause a crash is very small, but if all of the millions of air travelers are using cell phones as they fly, the possibility of a confluence of circumstances causing a crash or other problems rises drastically.
By analogy, if I'm trying to shoot a 1-inch target from half a mile away, my chances are pretty bad, but if a million people are firing at the same target, *someone* is going to hit it. The FAA doesn't want anyone firing at that target.
Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/30/2012 | 12:00:12 AM
re: FAA Reconsiders Airplane Mobile Device Ban
Interesting that the FAA is spending the money for this study, but already announcing that they may not make policy changes based on the findings of it. Say what? You're going to spend taxpayer dollars and NOT do anything with it?

Moving on - the idea of banning the operation of all devices that have the capability of receiving or transmitting data is a good one. Although, that might make carriers like Virgin America and AirTran a bit unhappy since they're building out their fleet with wireless points and Internet connectivity. If the FAA rules not to allow Tx/Rx devices, they've just lost a revenue stream, a selling point and possibly some of their customers.

AirFone would be a different item all together - since that's a known, documented and tested system that's gone through a bunch of hoops prior to being installed as a fixed system on an aircraft. The FAA had to approve it before it could fly - the problem that they're wanting to address is the explosion of consumer-oriented mobile electronic devices and how well (or not so well) they adhere to FCC regulations regarding broadcasting interference, etc.

One could argue that this wouldn't even be an issue on an aircraft that wasn't equipped with fly-by-wire controls - once you remove the physical link between the cockpit and the control surfaces, you have to secure that system the best that you can to keep the aircraft safe.

There's a lot more at work here than simply inconveniencing passengers who want to find out just how bad some Hollywood starlet is in trouble or preventing you from listening to your classic radio programs on your fruit-flavored device.

That said, I'm glad that my old Mini-Disc player doesn't have Tx/Rx capability. :)

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
User Rank: Ninja
8/29/2012 | 5:00:14 PM
re: FAA Reconsiders Airplane Mobile Device Ban
I've always wondered why, if this such a vulnerability to airplanes, people can take them on board at all? If I'm a terrorist, why bother trying to sneak an explosive on the plane when I can just use my iPhone to crash the plane. Or even better, some high tech jamming type device. Doubtful TSA would have clue as you carried that right on board and then fired it up in flight.
Tom LaSusa
Tom LaSusa,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/28/2012 | 6:25:06 PM
re: FAA Reconsiders Airplane Mobile Device Ban
I think it's important to make it clear that the FAA is not reconsidering in-call flights -- that is still off the table. They are simply exploring whether the use of a phone's other features, as well as a tablet, notebook, ipod, Nintendo DS, etc would cause an issue.

Besides, I imagine the airlines that still feature airfones would put up a fight if calls were allowed, given how much they no doubt invested in the tech.

Tom LaSusa
InformationWeek Community Manager
User Rank: Apprentice
8/28/2012 | 5:23:22 PM
re: FAA Reconsiders Airplane Mobile Device Ban
This has always annoyed me when flying that I do not have access to my mobile device. I see the point and follow all rules when flying but I think stewardess love saying Gǣ if it has a power button power it offGǥ. I do not think that this statement is acurate, not every device with a power button needs to be turned off. I never understood why my old iPod has to be turned off when it runs on its own and uses no outside sources to draw the data. I am glad that this issue is finally being addressed. This situation makes me think of mobile devices and learning institutions on allowing them in classrooms, I say that to point out another mobile device issue that should be addressed and updated.

Paul Sprague
InformationWeek Contributor
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