FAA to review rules on use of electronic devices
Still no cells • Feds may be softening a bit on the restrictions on digital tablets, some other electronic devices.


The New York Times

Published: August 29, 2012 11:22PM
Updated: August 30, 2012 09:13AM
Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune SkyWest and Delta Connection passenger jets along Terminal E at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, May 16, 2012.

Air travelers carrying smartphones, digital tablets and other electronic devices have long complained about having to turn off their gadgets until reaching an altitude of 10,000 feet.

Now the Federal Aviation Administration may be softening a bit on the restrictions, taking a first step in possibly accommodating the growing pervasiveness of digital technology.

The agency has initiated a review of its policies about electronic devices in all phases of flight, including takeoff and landing. The FAA said Monday that it would set up a group composed of technology manufacturers, plane makers, pilots and flight attendants to examine the issues this fall. The group would report back within six months.

Their mission will be to figure out whether electronic devices can cause interference with the cockpit and when to allow their use without compromising safety. The FAA said it was not considering lifting the prohibition on the use of cellphones during flight.

“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,” Michael P. Huerta, the FAA’s acting director, said in a statement. “We also want solid safety data to make sure tomorrow’s aircraft designs are protected from interference.”

The current policy is that all electronic devices must be turned off once the main cabin doors are closed and until the aircraft reaches 10,000 feet, or descends below that level for landing. Above 10,000 and when planes are at cruising altitude, passengers are allowed to use laptops, tablets and other electronics but not cellphones.

The rule was first introduced to stop airborne cellphones from interfering with wireless networks on the ground. In some rare instances, cellphones were also suspected of having caused radio interference inside cockpits or disrupted communications between pilots and air traffic controllers.

The FAA does not actually ban the electronic devices, but it requires airlines to test them and determine that their radio frequencies do not pose a flight safety risk. Since that would mean testing thousands of types of gadgets, with more introduced each month, the airlines have simply banned their use during takeoff and landing.

Some restrictions will remain regardless of the new group’s recommendations. Aviation regulators and airlines do not want passengers to be overly distracted during takeoff and landing, which are the most hazardous phases of flight. That is why window blinds must remain open, so passengers are aware of their surroundings in case of an emergency evacuation.