Consumers increasingly want access to their digital devices at all times—even when transitioning from the ground to the air and back again.
The Federal Aviation Administration may finally be catching up to public sentiment. The agency announced last month that it would begin the process of evaluating whether these devices can be used safely for the entirety of a flight.
This announcement comes after the drumbeat of press reports and pressure to update existing regulations that has been growing louder as of late.
“With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “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.”
Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for wireless trade group CTIA, applauded the FAA’s announcement, saying the agency seems to be responding to consumer pressures.
“It’s a step in the right direction; it’s an acknowledgement of what we see in the marketplace,” Carpenter said. “If you walk down the center aisle of a plane, what you see before flight and once the flight’s taken off is there are a tremendous number of consumers using their mobile devices to read, work or be entertained. They’d like to be able to use it for the totality of the flight.”
Nick Bilton, who has blogged about the issue extensively for the New York Times, wrote last year that he went to several experts, but couldn’t find a good answer for why these devices should be banned at all.
Bilton and others have been pressing the agency to explain why, given the lack of substantial evidence that devices do cause interference, it hasn’t changed its policy, especially since many pilots use iPads in the cockpit and flight attendants are starting to use them as well.
Morgan Durrant, a spokesperson for Delta Airlines, said Delta has done “limited testing of tablet devices in flight decks in accordance with current FAA guidelines,” but plans to wait until the FAA moves forward to ensure the airline remains in compliance with federal regulations.
Because of the wide range of aircraft and devices, current regulations place the burden of determining which devices may be used safely on the airline carrier. The FAA has recommended that devices only be allowed during “non-critical phases” of the flight, which means not during takeoff or landing.
But Carpenter said there’s no sufficient evidence suggesting that using portable devices on airplanes actually results in interference that causes airplanes to have difficulties communicating or navigating. He pointed to markets outside of the United States where carriers have allowed continual use of electronic devices without problems, as well as a study conducted 10 years ago that found there was no interference from mobile devices. He also said the likelihood of at least a few people either forgetting to turn off their device or choosing not to currently supports the argument that it’s safe.
“There’s a strong case to be made for some liberalization of the rules,” he said. “The FAA understands the existing regime has been too rigid and has failed to accommodate advances in technology and consumer preferences.”
The agency is seeking information on how airline operators currently decide whether a device causes interference, and whether they can allow more widespread use. It also wants to explore future construction of aircraft to see if they could be made immune to interference.
The FAA is currently accepting public comment on these issues. It will then convene the working group in the fall, made up of representatives from the mobile technology and aviation manufacturing industries, pilot and flight attendant groups, airlines and passenger groups, which will study the issue for six months before issuing a recommendation. At that point, the agency will decide on what action it wants to take based on the recommendations.