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.
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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.