FAA Inches Down Runway to New In-Flight Gadget Rules

The Federal Aviation Administration is getting closer to lifting some of the restrictions on the in-flight use of electronic gadgets during takeoff and landing.

An advisory panel is meeting this week to complete its recommendations on the subject. By the end of the month, the panel is expected to complete a report to the FAA.

The panel is reportedly considering allowing a range of activities, including reading e-books, listening to podcasts and watching videos. Sending and receiving emails and text messages or using WiFi, however, will remain off-limits, according to news accounts.

The FAA is expecting the recommendations but declines to speculate how they might translate into actual rules.

“We will wait for the group to finish its work before we determine next steps,” the FAA said in a statement provided to TechNewsWorld by spokesperson Alison Duquette.

‘No Evidence Has Emerged’

Whatever incremental activities the FAA will allow, they cannot come too soon for many flyers, independent technology analyst Jeff Kagan told TechNewsWorld. “This is what people have been begging for — for years — and frankly, many people leave their devices on during take off and landings, either on purpose or because they forgot to turn them off.”

For that reason, Kagan added, it is highly unlikely that the emissions of these devices are a danger to the flight’s safety — the reason long cited by the FAA for the ban.

“There is no way to prove without a doubt that anything is safe,” he said. Yet “no evidence has emerged in 20 years that these devices are unsafe.”

Some Restrictions Remain

Because of that slight, tiny window of lingering doubt, however, the FAA is unlikely to allow wholesale, unfettered use of these devices, Daniel Castro, senior analyst with theInformation Technology & Innovation Foundation, told TechNewsWorld.

“I suspect there will still be restrictions on their use,” he said.

The FAA will probably consider the fact that flight attendants have been resistant to a relaxation of these bans as well.

“They see them as potential projectiles in case of extreme turbulence,” Castro explained. “Also, passengers tend not to pay attention to the attendants during the safety explanations if they have devices to watch.”

One potential solution for the FAA is to lay the decision at the airlines’ doorsteps, he suggested: “They might let them set the rules,” he said.

Alternatively, another possibility is to set a certain level of emissions that a device cannot exceed. That way, when new devices come to market, the rules won’t have to be further adjusted, Castro noted.

Pressure Mounts

What is almost certain is that the FAA will relax the rules a little bit — the pressure to do so has been intense.

In December 2012 the head of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, sent a letter to Michael Huerta, acting administrator of the FAA, calling on the agency to allow for the greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices on flights.

At the time, Genachowski reportedly argued that these devices “empower people to stay informed and connected with friends and family, and they enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness.”

The issue has caused its fair share of grumbling among passengers, and in at least once instance, an outright scene. A few years ago, on an American Airlines flight, actor Alec Baldwin was asked to shut down his Words with Friends game for takeoff. He reportedly refused, then got up to finish the game in the bathroom, slamming the door so loudly the pilots could hear it in the cockpit. Baldwin was escorted off the plane.

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