Will the FAA stop prohibiting electronic devices on commercial flights?

As I noted in a Boing Boing post yesterday, there's news of a possible change ahead for in-flight gadget rules in the US.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits passengers from using electronic devices on commercial flights when the plane is below 10,000 feet in altitude. But the FAA announced this week that after widespread demands to modify restrictions, there may be new efforts to review whether devices like the iPad or phones in "airplane mode" can be permitted safely during takeoff and landing.

Aviation journalist and pilot Miles O'Brien, who uses his iPad for navigation while flying his own plane, joined KPCC's Patt Morrison show today to discuss the news. Here's a direct MP3 link to the radio segment. It's a good listen.


  1. Of course they aren’t dangerous.  Ever heard of a terrorist plot to bring down an airplane by leaving cell phones on?  No me neither.  I assumed the rule was really about holding the passenger’s attention during the safety presentations 

  2. It’s not technically true to say that the FAA has banned use of devices below 10,000 ft.  The FAA allows any device that the airline has determined to be safe, but an FAA advisory circular suggests under the heading “recommended procedures” that airlines prohibit use of electronics during takeoff and landing.

  3. If I have to listen to people blabbering on their cell phone for an entire flight I’m going to go insane, start fights and throw phones around the plane.  Its bad enough that I have to drive down the road trying to avoid these idiots swerving around like drunks while they’re texting, if I have to sit in earshot from them every time my job forces me travel, I’ll probably try to throw someone out of the damn plane…and that’s the real “security threat” of electronics.

    You have to ban all electronics and make up BS excuses about interference to keep cell phones banned.  If you allow everything else, then the d-bags who feel that everyone in a 50 ft radius needs to hear their conversation will demand their phones and then you’ll have riots on the planes.

    1. If everyone spoke on their phones at the same volume as though they were talking to another person sitting beside them, it’d be fine. What makes some people shout?

      You know, I can remember in my youth, old people who had grown up in the days before phones of any sort were commonplace; some of them never got out of the habit of shouting when they made a phone call. It’s as though they didn’t quite believe they could be heard from so far away. Are these modern cellphone users suffering from the same problem, I wonder?

  4. I always figured it was more a matter of having hard heavy objects secured during take off and landing (the two most likely times for a crash to happen) as a safety precaution against having them flying around the cabin hitting people.

    1. I figured that too, but flight crews seem more interested in having people turn them off than stowing them (with the more or less consistent exception of full sized laptops).  Just the same, I wouldn’t want to be smacked in the head with an iPhone moving at 80 knots during an otherwise survivable hard landing.

      1.  I wouldn’t fancy being bashed in the head with a hardback book, either, but I haven’t noticed them banning those.

        1. They actually do ask that all items, be they electronic or otherwise, be stowed during takeoff and landing.

  5. They say that phones will still be a no-no because of the aircraft’s speed. Each phone would keep swapping from tower to tower and block people on the ground’s calls.

  6. Hello?
    Are you there?Guess where I am!
    Guess where–guess where I am!
    I’m on the plane!
    I said, “I’m on the plane!”
    I’m on the plane right now!

  7. Everyone knows that Words with Friends will take a Boeing 747 below 10k ft. down in seconds flat.  Shoe bomber?  Thing of the past.  Try Jihadist with wi-fi enabled phone.

  8. Reading skillz peoplez – they’re talking about allowing devices to operate in airplane mode. Right now I can’t even listen to my totally-non-communicative mp3 player during takeoff and landing, but nobody asks me to take the battery out of my watch or the travel-alarm-clock in my suitcase in the hold.

    1.  Yeah but I think some people are taking the opportunity to mock how equally ridiculous is that you can’t make a phone call or surf the net during take off.  I mean just think…instead of convoluted high-jacking plans why don’t the terrorists just turn on their phones and call each other?

  9.  I guess the ‘electronics’ element is one part of the equation.

    But what about the other: people need to listen to many instructions during takeoff and landing. Safety instructions, exits, buckle up etc.

  10. It’s time to just give up on this idea that these devices will cause havoc.   People are not shutting them off on planes.   Doctors and nurses themselves use them constantly in hospitals.   Notice how these devices are all around us on constantly but nothing ever seems to malfunction?  

  11. My last shred of respect for this rule evaporated when they told me I had to turn off my kindle.

    With the wireless off, the thing isn’t even using any *power* because of the e-ink display. If that is a danger to the airplane, then you designed the airplane wrong.

  12. I was on Fox 35 Orlando’s morning smile show, “Good Day”, for  less than two minutes talking about this. Well, I thought this is what I was going to talk about. The non-Morbo hostess only wanted to know whether she would be able to use her cell phone. She was disappointed when I told her it was unlikely she would be able to use her cell phone.

    As to PEDs and T-PEDs (Portable Electronic Devices and Transmitting-PEDs), I know it’s hard to keep in mind, but excepting some of the satellite-navigation stuff like GPS and ADS-B, the designs of communication, navigation, and surveillance (CNS) electronics in certified aircraft have been in place for decades. VOR — VHF Omnidirectional Ranging — was invented in the 1940s. And non of it, even the new stuff, was designed thinking that planes would be full of radio-frequency emitting devices; you can make an argument that the more recent stuff should’ve been, but it wasn’t. And there are about 20 or so different CNS technologies that the ones on any individual aircraft could be chosen from.

    There are two real technical issues: The problem with T-PEDs isn’t their operation at the frequencies they’re supposed to work at: the avionics will reject those frequencies like they ought to. But RF from multiple T-PEDs can get picked up either by equipment in racks in avionics cabinets or by cables (yeah yeah, they oughta be better shielded) running the aircraft’s length: that’s called getting in the back door. Intermodulation between different frequencies due to nonlinearities from bimetallic junctions to transistors can generate frequencies that are in the bands the avionics are looking for. For legacy stuff, that can look like signal of interest, so if the intermod frequency is one of the two frequencies used to determine where the centerline of the runway is for an instrument landing (the localizer: one frequency is stronger when you’re to the left; one when you’re to the right; measure the strengths and compare), then you might not be on center on approach. For more modern stuff like GPS, you’ve got more energy there that’s not the signal you’re looking for, so the ability to capture and decode the GPS signals is degraded.

    For PEDs — and when that Kindle is doing a next page eInk draw, it’s probably emitting RF, albiet small. And it’s still got to be sitting there idly running some loop at however many MHz waiting for your next-page gesture unless they’ve got that sucker full of discrete logic or an FPGA equivalent implementing the user interface — the emissions are sufficiently small that coupling into the avionics by the back door is almost certainly ignorable. The problem is that that RF, and that’s pretty broadband RF noise btw, can get picked up by external antennas on the aircraft — i.e., go in the front door. When that happens, that’s going to increase the amount of power that’s noise as far as the avionics is concerned, which reduces detection likelihoods and increases bit error rates for digital stuff.There are examples in the Aviation Safety Reporting System where there have been avionics weirdness, and then where passengers — sometimes pilots — have turned personal electronics off and the weirdness went away. Yeah yeah, correlation/causation and all that.

    The RTCA, a non-profit membership organization that works with the FAA on avionics specs, had a special committee with membership from avionics vendors, aircraft manufacturers, pilots, flight attendants, electronics manufacturers, wireless trade organizations, etc., looking at this stuff several years ago. They wrote one document, RTCA/DO-294c, “Guidance on Allowing Transmitting Portable Electronic Devices (T-PEDS) [sic] on Aircraft”, 16 DEC 2008, which tells airlines how they can approve PEDs for use onboard. Everyone gripes that the expenses to do what they’re suggesting are too much. They also wrote RTCA/DO-307, “Aircraft Design and Certification for Portable Electronic Device (PED) Tolerance”, 11 OCT 2007, (with Change 1 published 16 DEC 2008) giving criteria for RF immunity for back-door T-PEDs and path loss for PEDs such that aircraft could be PED tolerant. 

    My guess is that the FAA is going to issue an Advisory Circular telling manufacturers how they can beef up their aircraft to be more RF immune and PED tolerant. If they want to change the regulations, they have to go through the rule making process. I’m really skeptical that they’re going to make any big changes in any short time. 

    So, it’s a real issue, and the FAA’s safety focus means they won’t move fast and without real evidence that no harm is done by the change.

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