FAA May Soon Relax Device Restrictions on Flights

If you've flown on an airplane within the last few decades, you're used to that stupid rule by now: shut off all electronics with an on/off switch during takeoff and landing. Most of us probably ignore the rule, and there's really no concrete evidence that our phones and tablets cause any kind of disruption between the cockpit and the tower. That has been an argument for a good few years, enough so that the FAA planned to change its policy during the back half of 2013. Finally.

In one of my many trips out west this year, I sat next to a pilot who was flying on standby back to the east coast. He said the rule to shut off all devices prior to takeoff and landing was more of a precautionary thing. Imagine it, he said, with 100 or more passengers sending and receiving calls and texts at the same time while the pilot is trying to manage a landing or takeoff. All those signals could possibly interfere with the communication between pilot and tower. While the rule likely won't be heeded by every passenger, a majority of the airwaves will be freed up.

It makes sense, but what if these devices were set to airplane mode, banning any kind of transmission? Even more, what about tablets and handheld game consoles? If their Wi-Fi radio is turned off, how can they possibly disrupt the pilot's communication? Do these gadgets even fall within rules that have thus remained unchanged since the 1960s?

Up until now, airlines have simply taken a shortcut and slapped a blank prohibition on all devices until planes reach 10,000 feet. However a new report indicates that the FAA is keeping to its word for less strict device use during taxiing and low-level altitudes. Yet industry officials and draft recommendations prepared by a high-level advisory panel to the agency indicate that cell phone calls will likely remain off limits, as the FAA didn't authorize the panel to investigate that controversial area.

”As the consumer electronics industry has exploded, [the FAA’s traditional stance of giving individual airlines leeway to evaluate the safety of specific devices before allowing them to remain on at low altitude] has become untenable," the FCC report states as transcribed by MarketWatch.

As previously stated, many passengers simply ignore the on/off rule. What are the airlines going to do? Throw you off the plane in mid-air? The FCC reportedly will have no choice but to revise its rules, as the panel discovered that nearly one-third of passengers admitted that they left one of their devices on at least once. Guilty as charged, and then some.

Even more, there's fear that unless the FAA relaxes a little regarding electronic devices, individual airlines could implement their own rules. Imagine the chaos, then, when one company loses business to another because the latter allows device use at takeoff. Confidence in the FAA and the industry’s ability to integrate personal electronic device usage will erode, the advisory group warns.

So far it looks like e-readers may be used during all phases of a flight whereas specific "approved devices" – likely Wi-Fi tablets and game consoles -- will be allowed to remain on from the time the cabin door closes to when it reopens at the destination. Cellphone use, for now, may likely remain banned until the plane reaches 10,000 feet.