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Personal Electronics Move Closer to Taking Flight

Those cloying reminders to shut off personal electronic devices at the start and end of an airline flight may soon be relics of the past if some members of Congress have their way.

Sen. Claire McCaskill recently advised Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael P. Huerta to “work to revise the necessary regulations” so passengers can use their Kindles, iPads, BlackBerrys and laptops throughout a flight.

For lawmakers, such as McCaskill, who sometimes fly several times a week, the issue is personal. “I am prepared to pursue legislative solutions should progress be made too slowly,” the Missouri Democrat wrote.

The ban on in-flight electronics dates back to the 1960s — when only fictional spies and starship captains carried the kinds of gadgets that are part of everyday use today. The prohibition stems from concerns that radio and television transmissions might interfere with aircraft navigation and communications.

But passengers these days aren’t likely to use portable televisions and radios. Transmissions by the smartphones and tablets that passengers are eager to use in the air are low-powered and unlikely to cause interference. That conclusion is supported by the Federal Communications Commission, which supports allowing broader use of consumer electronics aboard flights.

The FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Committee hasn’t updated its recommendations since 2006, when it issued an advisory circular that supported company-specific airline bans on electronics use. At the time, an FAA study was noncommittal, concluding there was “no evidence saying these devices can’t interfere with a plane, and there was no evidence saying that they can.”

FAA officials last month met with groups affected by the policy, including flight attendants, pilots and airline executives.

For airline employees, concerns about allowing electronics use on aircraft have as much to do with behavior as with technology. Witnesses at a 2005 hearing by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation expressed worries that allowing cellphone calls would drive up incidents of “air rage” by passengers frustrated about the additional din.

The Association of Flight Attendants, which participated in the recent meeting with the FAA committee, said its members remain concerned “about the potential for disruptions to safety and security from the use of portable electronic devices” but “will assist efforts to evaluate these important issues.”

A lot has changed to ease the concerns — even in the eight years since the House subcommittee hearing. Passengers these days are less interested in making telephone calls in flight than they are in using the wireless devices that provide on-the-go access to data, email or reading material. The adoption of these new technologies has shifted attitudes in favor of relaxing the bans.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the world’s second-largest carrier, provided data from a customer survey in response to the FAA’s latest request for public comment on updating its rules. It showed that making phone calls ranked a distant sixth desire for passengers wanting to use smartphones onboard planes, behind “reading e-books, text messaging, listening to music, watching movies and playing games.”

Reaction to the FAA’s call for input has been fairly consistent. Aside from Delta’s lengthy data-driven response and McCaskill’s letter to Huerta, thousands of consumer comments also poured in, many questioning whether the devices they are told to turn off onboard actually pose an interference danger.

“I don’t believe it creates any further problems than reading a paper,” one passenger wrote, referring to use of his e-reader during takeoff and landing.

“Nobody believes there is any risk to flight instruments from reading an e-book, listening to music, watching a movie or playing solitaire,” wrote another passenger, who also admitted to surreptitiously using electronics while flying. “It’s time to move on.”

Even FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has urged Huerta to act quickly, telling him last month in a letter that the latest FAA review comes at a time of “tremendous innovation, as mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives.”

So interwoven, in fact, that the FAA has already approved — at the airlines’ request — the use of tablet computers in the cockpit to replace bulky printed flight manuals. McCaskill said the move has only heightened the public’s sense that the existing electronics bans for passengers are superfluous.

While the FAA hasn’t commented on the ban since seeking public comment last summer, it’s unlikely a final decision will come quickly. The rule-making panel is expected to consider nine batteries of questions, including whether unstowed electronics could cause projectile injury during turbulent takeoffs and landings.

As part of its public comment submission, Delta also said that over a 32-month period in which it operated 2.3 million flights, “Delta pilots mentioned [electronics] as a potential source of an observed flight equipment discrepancy on only three occasions … but none were able to be confirmed by any operational or maintenance methodology.”

The airline also noted that despite its employees’ best efforts, “on numerous flights some number of passengers inadvertently leave their [electronics] on.”

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