FAA to review in-flight gadget policies, maybe, eventually

The US Federal Aviation Administration today announced it is exploring ways to make it easier for airlines to allow travelers to use connected gadgets like phones, iPads, and tablet PCs during plane takeoff and landing.

A statement released today says the FAA is “exploring ways to bring together all of the key stakeholders involved” (airlines, plane manufacturers, consumer electronics producers, and unions representing flight attendants) to discuss the possibility of testing devices to determine if they are safe for passengers to use during the most critical phases of flight.

“No changes will be made until we are certain they will not impact safety and security," read the statement. FAA rules currently require fliers to shut down their electronic devices when the plane's altitude is below 10,000 feet.

Snip from Nick Bilton at the NYT's Bits blog:

Abby Lunardini, vice president of corporate communications at Virgin America, explained that the current guidelines require that an airline must test each version of a single device before it can be approved by the F.A.A. For example, if the airline wanted to get approval for the iPad, it would have to test the first iPad, iPad 2 and the new iPad, each on a separate flight, with no passengers on the plane.

It would have to do the same for every version of the Kindle. It would have to do it for every different model of plane in its fleet. And American, JetBlue, United, Air Wisconsin, etc., would have to do the same thing. (No wonder the F.A.A. is keeping smartphones off the table since there are easily several hundred different models on the market.) Ms. Lunardini added that Virgin America would like to perform these tests, but the current guidelines make it “prohibitively expensive, especially for an airline with a relatively small fleet that is always in the air on commercial flights like ours.”

More at the New York Times, Associated Press, and Wall Street Journal.

Photo: "Person Holding a Business Phone While on a Plane," Jim Lopes, Shutterstock.


  1. I don’t get the obsession over this issue.  People seem so worked up over it, but does it really matter to turn off your gadgets for 10 minutes on either end of a flight?  I just don’t understand how people are so dependant on gadgets that they really can’t stand to do this!  Bring a magazine.  Or meditate.  Or write a card to your grandma.  Or (horrors) talk to the person next to you.  It’s really not the most horrible thing in the world.

    1. Honestly, I think people just like to tell stories. I doubt anyone is being harmed, but it adds some more spice to the tale of how you got to Toledo, that and being “stuck on the runway for 12 hours!” If one of the top gripes of air travel (TSA excluded) is that you can’t use the iPod for a bit, then I think we’re doing something right.

    2.  You are right: you don’t get the “obsession”.

      It isn’t “10 minutes”. For me, it’s often been 40 mins or more at each end of the flight. Which is stupid for a two hour flight.

      Our “gadgets” are where all of our “magazines” and books are now! My “gadget” is even how I send postcards to my grandma! Print magazines and newspapers may not be an option much longer. You might as well suggest people churn butter.

      Meditation sounds good. Until the person next to you sees that as a signal to talk to you the entire flight about their personal problems or how much they hate something.

      Obviously it isn’t the most horrible thing in the world, but the TSA has made some people less tolerant of consenting to stupid, random authoritarianism.

      1. Until the person next to you sees that as a signal to talk to you the entire flight about their personal problems or how much they hate something.

        You need to work on making your body language more hostile.

    3. Don’t talk to the person next to you. They don’ t want to talk to you. They’re on an airplane. They want to be where they are going, not make new friends.

      Otherwise, what you said. Except when you’re stuck on a tarmac not moving for hours. That’s a pain in the tush, since most of us plan for 30 minutes without our device, not six hours.

  2. I don’t understand why they can’t work out a deal with the FCC to make the FCC approval be good enough for the FAA as well. you know, like write up the specifications together or something. (I’m an RF engineer, so I sorta know what’s involved, technically at least.)

    1.  This might be a really good idea, but it would require two different federal regulatory agencies to work together closely, and we all know how that would end.

      1. Take note that the statement released today says the FAA is “exploring ways to bring together all of the key stakeholders involved (airlines, plane manufacturers, consumer electronics producers, and unions representing flight attendants),” but doesn’t include the three letters FCC.

  3. How about testing devices to see if ANY of them cause harm.
    Instead of testing all of them to clear each device? 

    1. Because you’re dealing with fast flying metal tubes full of flammable, explosive fuel, pressurized and full of anywhere between 50 and 500 people, flying over sometimes very densely populated areas. Possibility of an electronic device causing or being a factor in an air crash? Low. Cost of removing the possibility? A half-hour of personal thoughts time, and a boatload of money saved. 

      For what it’s worth, airlines are free to test any device they want to get it approved for use in-flight (in-flight wifi!), but they often don’t bother. Not to mention, they want you paying attention during take-off and landing, not sucked into your game of Cut the Rope.

      1.  This is the very definition of superstition. Assume black cats are dangerous until every last one of them has been tested.

        Also: Appeal to fear.

        Also: Strawman (Cut the Rope, as opposed to composing a critical email for work, to send once you’ve landed).

        The FCC tests all these devices to ensure they don’t cause undue interference. They could (may already) test the “airplane mode” and deny the use of that term to any device that emits EM in that mode. There’s no reason for this duplication of gov’t testing!

        1.  No. It is the very definition of Safety First.

          What you’re doing is the very definition of self-important.

          So go buy an airline and run it how you like.

          1. “Safety first” is often a good example of superstition.

            Self important? Please explain.

            I don’t think personal attacks are warranted or effective.

  4. I’ve asked flight attendants about this–c’mon, you can tell me, it’s not really going to bring the plane down, right? And without exception they always say, in a sort of conspiratorial tone of voice, that it’s really about making sure they have everyone’s undivided attention in an instant during the times of the flight when there’s most likely to be trouble.

    I’m sure that’s true, but I suspect there’s an even deeper reason that has even less to do with technology and more to do with preventing nonlethal in-flight catastrophes. If you make a rule, even one as technologically suspect as this one, and you enforce it, you get a sense of who you’re dealing with on a psychological basis. And every flight attendant will tell you that that’s where they earn their pay, keeping all of us brats pacified and civil in a stressful situation.

    So if Mr. 1% is too important to turn off his Blackberry without five requests, or if the BB commenter in seat 14A is boiling over with rage at the latest TSA indignity and slams his laptop shut while muttering about creeping fascism, those are things the cabin crew wants to know. Not because they care about the underlying causes, but because they’ll need to treat the symptoms for the next four hours. Otherwise, a plane is a pretty good incubator for bad vibes.

    Of course, I might be wrong, and if I’m right, nobody can ever say so, because that would defeat the purpose. But it makes a lot more sense than my Walkman making the wings fall off!

    1. No, it’s the first thing, they don’t want you distracted by your devices should an emergency occur. You’ll notice that if you listen to any in-flight entertainment options during this time (or in the modern day, you’re watching the seat-back TV), all programing is interrupted when anyone makes a PA announcement. So, even if your headphones are in you’ll hear what they are saying. Similarly, you are more easily brought to attention from reading or puzzling than from shutting yourself off with the iPod. As for tray tables, they don’t want to impede the exit for others, and they don’t want you storing heavy things on there that can get tossed about in any sudden violent maneuvers. 

      The other thing people should know is that this is the FAA doing its job, protecting people from potential catastrophe. As it happens, an airline can get any device approved, but they must foot the bill for testing said device, and use their own aircraft to do so. Hence, there isn’t a lot of flak from airlines over this, they want you paying attention. 

      Frankly, I wish people weren’t so whiney about this, the cosmos forbid you can’t play Angry Birds or Words with Friends for 30 mins, grab a crossword or look out the window. 

      1.  So I can’t read my Nook, but the guy next to me can read his hardcover Stephen King novel?  Where’s the difference in distraction or weight? 

    2. Hang on… you’re asking the stewardesses about operational safety?

      Okay, I’m gonna go ask my dentists receptionist if fluoride is safe.

  5. This is nothing short of ridiculous absurdity. None of it is based on even remotely real threat of interference. Can they just admit that and move on?

  6. As my hero Doug Stanhope points out, as much as people say “oh why can’t you be without your iPad for 15 minutes” or what have you (and I will admit, there is a point to be made there, I’m equal opportunity)…no one has stats (and it’s largely impossible to calculate) how much air rage is *prevented* due to letting people calm down with these things, or have one extra rye and ginger to calm their nerves and let them sleep. Between the TSA and the dumbass “captain” (was “pilot” not a cool enough term? now you have to add some kind of pseudo-military title to it too?) telling you what your altitude is, as if anyone gives a shit, or has any frame of reference as to the difference of one altitude vs. another (I can picture everyone’s 62 year old aunt after the flight…”Well the flight there we flew at 29,000 feet, but the flight home it was 33,000! Can you imagine!”), people need to turn off their brains a little onboard…is it too much to ask to be able to listen to some Bob Dylan while the thing takes off?

    1. Actually, there’s a clear distinction between “captain” and “pilot”, as any sailor can tell you. On an airliner it’s the same person doing both jobs, for good reasons. But the reasons for that are purely economic. Being in charge of the aircraft is not, in principle, the same job as flying it. It’s just convenient to do both at once.

      (The co-pilot may take over the flight controls. He never takes over the captain’s responsibility.)

  7. It’s a multi-level issue, for sure, but no flight attendant on any airline has EVER told me to remove my Bose noise-cancelling headphones.  Even with the removable audio cable still plugged into the left earcup.  I usually do, like a good doobie-doo, but have never had an issue.  I can take off with them on, land with them on.  They have a little green light too, when they are on, plainly visible.  Maybe I’m just THAT CHARMING and using the Force, I dunno.

    1.  or they worked out long ago that “on” doesn’t always mean “music is playing through them”

  8. Speaking as a pilot: Matthew Kramer’s comments above are spot-on and you should listen. When emergencies happen, they are more likely to happen during take-off and landing, so the crew want you paying attention, not immersed in WoW with your earbuds in and the volume cranked. (At altitude, on the other hand, they’d actually prefer you to be under electronic sedation, which is why you almost never see those big drop-down screens anymore — every airline that can afford it is retrofitting for personal seat-back systems.) 

    1. This makes sense.  But as mentioned elsewhere, why is the issue then being presented as a technical problem rather than a human relations problem.

      I would guess that the “proof” that these devices don’t harm the flight equipment already exists without the need for expensive testing — because, out of millions of flights, with millions of passengers, I find it very unlikely that  even 99% of the time people *actually* turn off the devices.  Think of the millions of takeoffs and landings that occurred successfully with all the running devices onboard (either through wilfulness or forgetfulness)

      Then again, I wouldn’t venture to estimate how many non-lethal (and not worthy of media attention) seemingly random glitches occur in a cockpit over the course of millions of flights, so I guess I take back my second paragraph.

      but seriously, instead of making up fear-mongering bullshit about someone’s iPod bringing down the airplane, why not be honest?  “Take-off and landings are the most critical moments of the flight, and so we require you to put away all reading materials and electronic devices and pay attention to the safety warnings.”  I can’t imagine you’d have any less compliance than you have now.

  9. As an iPad owner, I am very understanding that during take off and landing, they don’t want me watching a movie or listening to music in case they need my attention in the event of an emergency.

    But if I am merely using my Kindle app, I don’t see how that is any different from the person sitting next to me reading a paper book and they aren’t required to put the book away at any time.

    I just wish they would relax the some of the restrictions in a reasonable way.

  10. I probably wouldn’t mind it so much if it was just for the safety briefing, but many airlines also use this captive time to pitch their credit cards, vacation packages, show car commercials on their in-flight systems, etc. That’s where the BS factor comes in…

  11. I’m waiting for the movie where the plane is taken over and the passengers Macguyver control back by use of their personal electronics.  

  12.  Some of the comments persuade me that it’s not strictly a technical problem.

    But the FAA claims it IS a technical problem, so let me ask a technical question:  why not build a Faraday cage around the passenger cabin and be done with it?

  13. I don’t care how they decide this as long as inflight cell phone conversations are forbidden forever.

  14. I’d bet every flight has at least one IPad/IPhone/Android/Kindle left on, if only by accident. Compile that data and I’m certain there is 0% correlation between wireless devices being on and planes crashing.

  15. I can’t see any laptop/kindle/nook users needing the wifi feature anyway; the chances of connecting over 802.11 while in flight are sort of vanishingly low unless it’s the airline’s system anyway. If that’s the hassle, ‘airline mode’ or wifi off should be sufficient, and is probably a good idea if you want the battery to last all flight anyway.

    I can’t see a difference between my Kindle and a paper book except for the weight and number of pages. Oh, and having text in a readable size. 

  16. What they probably ought to do is test a plane loaded up with a bunch of fully active electronics, van de graff generators, malfunctioning Tv’s, ham radio sets run by toddlers, running hairdriers, dented microwave ovens, etc and if its fine end all electronic activity rules… and if it’s not make sure the next wave of planes is fine and look into retrofitting the current ones.

    However items larger and heavier than phones should probably remain stowed for purely mechanical threat reasons.

    I dropped my ipad once from waist height.  It chopped into the wood floor like an axe leaving a 1/4″ deep divot.  Quite sure it could have seriously damaged my toe.  Really don’t want those flying around the cabin if there is a problem.  A phone in the head would hurt quite a bit, but a tablet or laptop could easily seriously injure someone.

    (PS the ipad was fine.  This event caused me to stop using the smart cover.  What happened was I didn’t have a secure enough grip and when the thing started to slide I reflexively grabbed the smart cover which just pulled right off.  Significant flaw in the magnet attachment idea.)

  17. For those who haven’t been paying attention lately, airlines have been testing iPads, and have no problems with them, because several airlines have already issued flight crew with iPads loaded with all charts and documentation in order to replace large, heavy and cumbersome flight cases.
    I can certainly believe its all about making sure the passengers are paying attention.

  18. My Dad (retired now) was a quality control engineer for a component used in jet airplanes.  It regulates fuel usage.  He and his colleagues spent years sweating the  details before it was used.  A couple years after his retirement, one plane that had his component had a major engine failure, he was tremendously relieved when the cause was determined to have nothing to do with his component.  He told me he won’t be completely relaxed about it until they move onto the next generation component or engine and all the one’s he was in charge of are no longer in use.  He intellectually knows that his part is safe, well over a decade of no safety issues, but I can’t imagine him agreeing to anything that could theoretically lead to less safety for one of “his” engines.

  19. I’ve been testing this for a long time now. I always put my iPod/iPad in sleep mode and never completely power them off. There was also a time when I forgot to turn my phone off and the flight magically did not crash. So, I don’t see why they shouldn’t allow electronic gadgets during take off. It’s one less thing for the stewardess to check.

  20. In the FAA guidance to airlines, there are three reasons for not allowing electronic devices at critical flight times: Inattention (getting lost in a good book or film), the potential for the device to act as a projectile and physically injure someone, and the possibility of electronic interference.

    As a tactical matter, I wish you all would stop pointing out to the FAA that (at least for items one and two) Harry Potter in hardback or Architectural Digest magazine are dangers that are as big or greater than your Kindle. I’m not sure why you expect their response to be un-banning the kindle rather than banning your books and magazines.

    As to the interference, I see no difference in frequency spectrum or output power between the devices current today and those tested in UK Civil Aviation Authority CAA Paper 2003/3; “Effects of Interference from Cellular Telephones on Aircraft Avionic Equipment” and the NASA report that stated: “If a CDMA or GSM wireless handset radiated spurious signals equal to the maximum allowable FCC limits, it would result in large NEGATIVE safety margins, even when considering “reasonable minimum” radio receiver interference thresholds”.

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