F.A.A. Taking “Fresh Look” At Passenger iPad, Device Use During Takeoff/Landing

F.A.A. Taking “Fresh Look” At Passenger iPad, Device Use During Takeoff/Landing

iPad ban during takeoff/landing being reconsidered

Anyone who’s ever flown is familiar with the “please turn off all electronic devices” speech that flight attendants give after closing the airplane door and again shortly before landing. The ban on electronic devices of all kinds exists out of fear that devices might interfere with the planes navigation and other systems, even if the device doesn’t include any sort of radio antenna.

The ban on electronic devices has come under fire recently as the F.A.A. has been certifying the use of iPads in the cockpit during all phases of flight (including takeoff and landing) by various commercial airlines as a replacement for hefty “flight bags” of paper manuals and charts.

In a move that will music to the ears of Words With Friends addict Alec Baldwin, the agency is looking at allowing the use of electronic devices by passengers during takeoff and landing

The last time the F.A.A. considered the matter was in 2006 – a time before most of today’s devices like iPads and Kindles simply didn’t exist. According to the New York Times, the agency fully aware that it’s time to take a “fresh look” at the issue.

One of the challenges to getting devices certified and allowed during all phases is of flight is that current F.A.A. rules require each airline to request device permission “once the airline demonstrated the devices would not interfere with aircraft avionics.” That’s a time consuming and expensive proposition that doesn’t translate directly into revenue for an airline. Since the airlines don’t have an incentive to go through all the needed steps, the federal agency is looking at the option of taking on the burden of testing itself, though how long it will take to make any changes is an open question.

Another potential problem is that demonstrating devices don’t impact a plane’s systems needs to be done separately for each type of device – and that means each model of a device. Approving the iPad means testing the original iPad, the iPad 2, and the newest iPad – and each generation of iPad will likely need to be tested twice to cover both Wi-Fi and 3G/4G models. Under the current rules, and not likely to change, each device model needs to be tested on a separate flight and with each type of aircraft in an airline’s fleet.

Even if the F.A.A. takes that on for the carriers, that’s a lot of flights, and it faces the problem of new devices not being certified as they come to market. Although the agency is looking to engage device makers, the sheer volume of new devices that come out in a given year (or even in a given quarter) can be massive.

So, while this is good news, it looks like we’re still going to be turning off devices at the beginning and end of commercial flights for the foreseeable future. That said, it is nice to see that the F.A.A. is actually taking a look at this issues.

It’s also worth noting that the agency also has no plans to include smartphones in any policy or rule changes, most likely because of the longer range antennas and/or the sheer volume of devices that would need to be tested.

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  • llahnoraa

    Good post! I was thinking the same thing too!

  • Len Williams

    It would be far easier for the FCC to do some basic research on how much and what type of electrical interference actually CAN cause a change in a plane’s onboard avionics, if any. Right now the rule is a blanket “no electronic devices, period” yet I’ve never seen any testing to determine if this is even a factor in the first place. Once the type and amount of interference is established, the FCC could publish guidelines and requirements to device manufacturers for future products to comply to. This would eliminate the need to test each and every model of every device with every kind of plane, which is a nightmare scenario. Eventually, all mobile phones, tablets, laptops and music players could sport “FCC Airline Approved” stickers as selling points on their packages and in advertising. In the space of 4-5 years, most manufacturers will be creating only FCC-approved models and the situation will be a dead issue.

    What I’m not certain about is that there is actually any situation with interference to a plane’s avionics at all. I remember an episode of Mythbusters that found absolutely zero interference from a whole bunch of phones and laptops that were turned on during a simulated takeoff. The Mythbusters staff had to crank up a huge field with a separate electromagnetic generating device to cause any affect on the avionics.

  • Jonathan Schmidt

    Doesn’t it make more sense for the FAA to present a series of specs that must be met by device manufacturers? That way, a device could be certified by the manufacturer as safe for in-flight usage. Perhaps it could be done as a part of FCC certification or even through the UL. It would seem a monumental task for the FAA to take on the burden of testing thousands of consumer devices when there are many different types of aircraft.

  • bmdonovan

    If PED’s were actually capable of bringing down a plane, there’s no way they’ be allowed on any flight. Am I seriously expected to believe the electromagnetic interference of my phone is truly dangerous, yet it’s my fingernail clippers you want to flog me for putting in my carryon? A flight full of kids with 3DS’s could down a 747, but all the security needed is a flight attendant asking them once to turn them off?

  • Kburleigh19

    Are there certain devices that can interfere with aircraft transmissions? sure. Can those that we typically use like phones and laptops interfere? no. Should we leave it up to aircraft crew to determine if each and every device is ok? no. Its much easier just say “don’t use any”. Personally I would rather not have several dozen wifi hotspots up and transmitting data during take off (a situation like that one iPhone announcement when Steve made the guests turn off their wifi). Look, most aircraft emergencies happen during take off and landing. The flight crew needs the passengers to be as least distracted as possible during those times. I know that no one listens to the flight crew’s safety speech anymore, but its their job to do everything they can do to try to make sure that you do. Knowing the location of your nearest exit is actually pretty damn important if there is a problem. They also don’t need any more potential loose objects that can possibly fly around the cabin during an emergency. I know these precautions are there to cover the rare worse case scenarios, but thats kind the whole point of aircraft safety.

  • awolfram

    Good idea.   Another option is to just put the burden on the manufacturer.  Apple could easily afford its own evaluations, and then have the marketing privilege of saying its various products are “FAA Certified” devices.

  • Elder Norm

    Except for cell phones, there is no real danger from electronic emissions during take off and landing.  But that is not really the issue. 

    During take offs and landings, the plane is only seconds from the ground and a possible crash.  During this time, EVERYONEs attention needs to be on being able to get up and get off the plane quickly.  NOT finishing their game, saving their work, or finishing the movie.   

    The “Gee don’t scratch my new iPad even thought I am about to die in a fiery crash” attitude of many passengers is the real danger. 

    Just a thought.

  • presideo

    The problem with the theory that the ban on using PED’s during takeoff and landing is due to the requirement to have passengers at full attention is this – they do not ask people to be at full attention.  People are reading books, magazines, sleeping, doing crosswirds and playing sudoku.  The requirement is to turn off electronic devices…not pay attentions cause we might be seconds away from death. The PED issue is ridiculoius.  Even more ridiculous when you consider that they are letting pilots use ipads while passengers still follow the antiquated rule of shutting down thier devices that operate on a completely different band than any of the planes systems.

    This just in, please turn all devices with an on/off switch to thier power off position when pressing the accelerator pedal of your car for the first time as they might interfere with the automobiles electrical system.

    In the end, this is a monetary issue.  ONe that the FCC should take on in order to ensure ALL device manufacturers are compliant in the building of devices that have NO impact whatsoever withthe operation of the 90,000 lb metal tube with wings.

  • nukemhill

    I’ve heard it directly from multiple flight attendants (on multiple airlines) over the last couple of years that the issue is simply that almost all mishaps happen either in the first 10k feet taking off, or in the last 10k feet landing.  It’s not just the “pay attention ’cause we’re in the danger zone” issue, though that is a significant one.  It’s that electronic devices, much more so than books, are nasty airborne missiles.  If they get loose, they can cause a lot of damage.

    The electronic interference claim is simply a smokescreen.  It’s an easy way to enforce compliance without having to spend the extra time educating passengers as to the real issues.

    We’re all sheep, after all, and aren’t bright enough to comprehend anything more complex than an on/off switch.

  • presideo

    What about old man river reading his hard cover copy of Clavell’s Shogun?  That thing is a freaking airborn drop kick to the head if allowed to go flying through the air free. Or the guy using a clipboard or even big moleskine drawing pad/journal? That could take an eye ou given some velocity.

    Actually this does bring up an interesting point, but you must not have flown recently because they don’t actually ask you to put them away.  I hold my iphone in my hand throughout the whole taxi and take off process.  When a flight attendant sees it they simply ask “is that switched to airplane mode?”

    So you see, if they were worried about airborn electronic device missles they would ISNSIST that all devices are securely stowed away.  They do not.

    I believe they might be trying to cover all these issues, but failing to enforce any more than the “power off” aspect.  I mean, the last flight I was on you could look around and probably 30% of the passengers had headphones of some kind on. (Airline provided, bose noise cancelling or apple in ears)

    I know this is a complex issue, but not because it needs to be.  It is complex because it lacks clarity of purpose.  There is no real CONCRETE reason for the airlines to insist this other than “we haven’t tested to see if it’s safe to use that device.”

    Ummm, I don’t know about you but when I am putting my life in the airlines hands, I want to know that they have done, or the aircraft manufacturer has done, and will continue to do, exhaustive testing on all electronic devices and thier influence on the flight systems of thier aircraft.

    Because There has to be a very hig percentage of people who either forget, or just plain fail to, turn on airplane mode on their iphone or other phone. If this were truly a concern, then I think they would be way more strict in enforcing it, right?

  • David

    If electronic devices are a potential problem, does it make sense to only restrict their use during takeoff and landing? If they start interfering with the plane at 35,000 feet, is it believed that there will be time to regain control of the aircraft after everyone turns off the electronic devices? Are electronic devices in checked baggage a potential interference source?

  • gordonmorrison

    And if they really want to test the devices, they can test a group of devices at a time.  If something affects the plane’s systems, they can go to testing individual devices.  If they test all of the iPads at the same time and there is no effect, then all of the devices pass at one time.  

About the author

Ryan FaasRyan Faas is a technology journalist and consultant living in upstate New York who has written extensively about Apple, business and enterprise IT, and the mobile industry. In addition to writing for Cult of Mac, he is a contributor to Computerworld, InformIT, and Peachpit Press. In a previous existence he was a healthcare IT director as well as a systems and network administrator. Follow Ryan on Twitter and Google +

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