FAA Taking A “Fresh Look” At Allowing Use Of eReaders, iPads, Other Devices During Takeoff and Landing

Nick Bilton over at the NYTimes Bits blog is getting everyone prematurely excited because the FAA told him that they’re thinking about taking a fresh look at regulations that force passengers to turn off electronic devices for taxi, takeoff, and landing. As a semi-frequent traveler, I rejoice in this news, as do many of you I’m sure.

This weekend during my 32-hour battery odyssey I noticed that someone in every aisle on both my packed departing and returning flights had a tablet or eReader or other mobile device out. And that’s not counting the laptops. Yet at the beginning and end of every flight you either need to chill out, sleep, or grab some dead tree reading material.

This rule, like many others one faces at the airport (we still have to take our shoes off and put all liquids in a baggie? Ugh.) is based more on fear and conjecture than actual testing and data. However, the gathering of needed data is a time-consuming and expensive project.

iPads on Jetstar flights

iPads on Jetstar flights via Flickr

Abby Lunardini, vice president of corporate communications at Virgin America, explained that the current guidelines require that an airline must test each version of a single device before it can be approved by the F.A.A. For example, if the airline wanted to get approval for the iPad, it would have to test the first iPad, iPad 2 and the new iPad, each on a separate flight, with no passengers on the plane.

Yikes.

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Airlines also have to test each device on each type of plane in the fleet, not just any random plane. Easy to see why there’s no rush to get this done.

Bilton says that the FAA is trying to figure out a way to make this work by bringing more people into the discussions, including device manufacturers themselves. Seems to me that what the department really needs is a smart scientist or aerospace engineer to come up with some better testing guidelines.

Does every device really need to be tested on every type of plane? Does every single device need its own separate test? Is there any way to conduct the tests in a simulated setting instead of a real, empty plane?

What if the FAA relaxed the testing guidelines a bit to allow it on passenger flights, but only airlines offered a significant discount to the passengers in exchange for them signing a waiver indicating they know the risks?

I, like Bilton, am very cynical about how quickly the government will move on this and even more about any buerocrat’s ability to think outside of the box. The best hope is for some scientist or aerospace engineer or higher up at a device manufacturer brought the ideas to them. Perhaps with some funding attached. There must be a way to get a grant for this kind of thing…

  

Comments

  1. FlyingShawn says

    As an airline pilot, I’d like to point out that there are two primary reasons for the gadgets rule as it is today:

    1) Interference from portable electronics is not a complete myth, as many of my passengers seem to believe.  In the aircraft I fly, I’ve observed it most in the form of GSM buzz (like you get if you leave a GSM phone sitting near a set of speakers) interfering with our communications equipment, sometimes even to the extent that it is difficult to understand instructions from ATC!  I’ve also heard from other pilots and sources in the industry of other aircraft make/models that experience different  problems, such as a certain model of avionics commonly used in business jets experiencing non-trivial problems due to interference.  Granted, this interference is usually limited to devices with transmitting capability, but that brings me to my second point…

    2)  Less commonly discussed, but also extremely important, is the emergency safety aspect.  Imagine if the FAA were to allow any non-transmitting/airplane mode devices to be used in all phases of flight and the crew needed to evacuate the aircraft during taxi or takeoff.  FAA regulations require “real world” (average people, not aviation professionals) testing of new aircraft designs to ensure that everyone aboard can evacuate out half off the exits (in case the other half are blocked to due fire, terrain, etc) in less than 90 seconds.  If even a 10th of the people aboard are using their gadgets when the flight attendant needs to command an evacuation, they’re going to be significantly slower than other passengers.  Why?  They’ll either be zoned-into their gadgets (not paying attention to the announcement, so they’re slower to react, especially if they’re wearing headphones) and/or they’ll now have those same gadgets get in the way as they try to get out (such as having to get their laptop off the tray table and lift it up for the person trapped in the window seat next to them).

    I’m all for sensible regulations and hope that the FAA is able to find some middle ground that works for both passengers and the airlines, but I simply don’t see how they can make any significant shift in the rules without compromising that second point.  

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