A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) advisory panel is preparing to recommend that the regulatory agency allow the unrestricted use of mobile electronics on airplanes -- provided the devices in question aren't using radio frequencies.
The recommendation is due by the end of the month and will overturn a restriction believed to be out of date and not based on a factual understanding of the dangers posed by mobile electronic devices.
Complaints have long circulated about the FAA's rules about electronic devices. FAA tests of how much interference is generated by electronic devices, and of what kind, date back to 2006 and don't include any of the current generations of devices now in use.
What's more, most of the actual claims of interference appear to be anecdotal rather than based on hard evidence. The general argument has been that devices that emit radio frequencies could interfere with a plane's avionics or its own radios, but pilots and engineers alike have disputed this. One such incident was reported in 2007, where an issue on a plane was apparently traced to a handheld GPS device being used on board, but that appears to have been an isolated incident.
When the advisory panel convened back in June, it recommended the agency relax the ban on certain kinds of electronic devices during takeoff and landing. The draft report recognized what most people were saying: The rule against using electronic devices "has become untenable."
A key provision, though, was relaxing the takeoff/landing ban only on devices that aren't designed to broadcast a radio signal. (Each airline sets its own policy for device usage at altitudes above 10,000 feet, but takeoff and landing rules are controlled by the FAA.)
Another possible reason for pressure to relax the rules: the growing use of electronic devices in-flight by the cabin crew as a replacement for paper manuals. The iPad's thin-and-light design makes it appealing for such a use, but there's also concern about making sure the device can be secured in the event of a depressurization incident. The device itself can handily survive such a disaster, but could cause injury if it flies about the cabin.
Perhaps the real hazards of devices on planes, as the New York Times' Bits blog pointed out, isn't radio frequency interference but the static that erupts between people over device usage. In September 2011, a passenger had to be escorted off a Southwest Airlines flight to El Paso, Texas, when he refused to shut off his cellphone for landing. And in December of that year, actor Alec Baldwin was removed from an American Airlines flight when he refused to turn off his iPhone so the plane could leave the gate.
Those in the cockpit also need to make sure that being allowed to use devices freely doesn't interfere with their pilot duties. Back in 2009, two Northwest pilots were so engrossed with their laptops, they overshot their landing at Minneapolis-St. Paul by 150 miles.
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