Cell Phones and iPads On Planes? What the New FAA Rules Mean For You

Last August, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) formed an advisory committee to examine the policy related to Portable Electronic Device (PED) use on airplanes during takeoff and landing. The Associated Press reported Thursday that the committee will be recommending that most devices should be allowed as long as they are in airplane mode. The committee’s final report will be submitted to the FAA on Monday and airline passengers could see these changes take place as early as 2014.

The committee likely considered three issues during their deliberations over the past year. The first and main issue is the potential interference from PEDs with the plane’s communications, navigation, flight control, and electronic equipment. Secondly, there is concern that PEDs will further distract passengers from listening to the safety briefing. Lastly, some have noted that PEDs, which contain glass and are often heavier than non-PED objects, would be dangerous projectiles in the event of an emergency. Obviously the first issue is the one that has been highly debated over the years and will likely be the determining factor on which PEDs are allowed during takeoff and landing.

The New York Times spoke with several of the committee members and reported that the committee’s recommended policies “allow reading e-books or other publications, listening to podcasts, and watching videos” during takeoff and landing. The ban on emails, text messages, or using WiFi during takeoff and landing will remain in place.

It is logical that the committee members would be more concerned with these functional restrictions due to their difference in risk of interference. But the issue is more complicated than that, because PEDs like the Kindle and the iPad can do many things. You can use an iPad to watch a podcast, but you can also check your email. You can use your Kindle to read a book, but you could also be connected to 3G and download a new app off the Amazon Appstore.

So my question is, how will these proposed changes be implemented? Will flight attendants be checking to make sure you have turned off 3G on your e-readers and tablets? This would make for a lot of annoyed passengers, over-worked flight attendants, and likely more flight delays. Or will they simply allow all unchecked e-readers and tablets realizing that some passengers will break the rules and connect to the internet anyway? Thirty percent of passengers already ignore the current PED policy, so we can probably expect many passengers will ignore the new one.

One could note that pilots are already permitted to use an iPad inside the cockpit during takeoff and landing. But that is because rigorous tests have proved that one iPad would not cause interference with flight equipment. No tests have been done to show the effect of 150 iPads connecting to the internet at once. E-reader and tablet advocates are quick to point out that there is no substantial evidence to prove that interference is caused by PEDs. Unfortunately there is also not substantial evidence to prove that interference could not be caused by many PEDs in use at once. Therein lies the problem.

These tests would be time-consuming and expensive, which is why we’re currently not allowed to use e-readers, iPads, or other PEDs for any purposes during takeoff and landing. Airlines are not willing to dish out that much money for such tests since customers are willing to purchase flights either way.

What effect will these new policies have on passengers? Thirty percent of us already admit to leaving our cell phones and laptops on when told to turn them off. But just because the devices are on doesn’t mean that we’re sending texts and emails. If the FAA accepts the committee’s recommendations and allows e-readers and tablets during takeoff and landing, I’ll bet a large number of passengers will be sneaking in a few emails and Facebook checks. This could be completely harmless. But then again, we may just get the test data on PED interference that we have all been craving.

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Emily Calandrelli

Recent graduate from MIT with a Masters in Technology and Policy and a Masters in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Emily is currently the host and producer for an educational Outer Space show that will premiere on FOX in the fall.

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