Electronic Devices, Takeoff Might Get Along: FAA

FAA will reconsider letting airline passengers use some electronics during taxi, take-off, and landing. But don't pull out your smartphone just yet.
In December, actor Alec Baldwin refused to turn off his smartphone while the airplane on which he was a passenger taxied toward takeoff because he didn't want to cut short a game of Words With Friends. Baldwin eventually was booted from the plane.

Scenarios such as this could go away if the Federal Aviation Administration has anything to say about it.

"With the advent of new and evolving electronic technology, and because the airlines have not conducted the testing necessary to approve the use of new devices, the FAA is taking a fresh look at the use of personal electronic devices, other than cellphones, on aircraft," said Laura J. Brown, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs for the FAA.

In an interview with the New York Times, Brown explained that individual airlines may request that certain devices be allowed for passenger use during the critical taxi, take-off, and landing portions of flights. In order to get devices approved, however, the airlines have to take it upon themselves to test each device individually on a passengerless flight to guarantee that there are no interference issues that might endanger the aircraft. Worse, the airlines would have to test each version of a single device (such as the original iPad, iPad 2, and new iPad) separately.

[ The stakes are even higher behind the wheel. See Cellphone Driving Ban: Good Idea? . ]

Obviously, that's far too expensive a procedure for airlines to undertake, so none of them have done it.

What devices are up for consideration? Not smartphones. The FAA will look at devices such as e-readers, tablets, laptops, and other gadgets. Brown didn't provide details on why the FAA would not reconsider its stance on cell phones, but that doesn't mean there aren't good reasons for them to be left out of the running for now. (Cell phones are believed to interfere with airplane avionics, though exactly to what extent isn't clear.)

Although the prospect of being able to use certain electronic devices during taxi, take-off, and landing is good, there could also be downsides. The FAA didn't say anything about how it will review electronics use on planes, how long it will take, if new rules will be introduced, and so on. (Personally, I just want to be able to listen to music during the taxi/take-off process.)

The Times' Nick Bilton explains, "The FAA said it is exploring how to bring together electronics 'manufacturers, consumer electronic associations, aircraft and avionics manufacturers, airlines, pilots, flight attendants and passengers' to figure out how to allow greater use of these electronics on planes. That's a lot of people, organizations and bureaucracy to juggle. Plus the money to do this testing is going to have to come from somewhere."

In other words, new rules, if they ever happen, aren't going to go into effect next week (however much we might like them to). In the meantime, please be sure to obey the electronics rules on planes. Your fellow passengers will thank you for it.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

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