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FAA May Soon Relax Device Restrictions on Flights

By - Source: MarketWatch | B 13 comments

E-reader and tablet use may not be quite so restricted soon.

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.

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  • 0 Hide
    CaedenV , June 23, 2013 9:56 AM
    There was a day and a time when these rules made sense. It was not that long ago that consumer electronics use to give off a ton of EM interference. I use to have an old Nokia brick phone that gave off enough interference that you could hear it connecting to the cell towers on any nearby amplifier within 30 feet.
    But that was over 10 years ago. Modern equipment no longer uses analogue transmission for anything. Everything is digital, on very specific frequencies, and at much lower power than they use to be.

    Even if all 100 people were all streaming netflix and making phone calls at the same time, then so what? That is like saying that you cannot see what is in front of you because the IR or UV rays of the sun are too bright. Other than possible physical damage, the amount of it hitting your eyes will have no affect on what you see because your eyes are incapable of seeing those frequencies. Similarly, airlines are not using the same frequencies, or communication protocolls, as what consumer equipment is using. The argument is like saying that you cannot hear what someone is saying because there is a bright light in another room. Or that you are having trouble "smelling the color 9" because "colorless green is sleeping furiously". It is just nonsense that has nothing to do with eachother! Even if the same bandwidth was used the sheer amplitude at which towers and planes can communicate should be more than capable of shouting down the other electronics.

    Or put another way; If airlines are using equipment that is so easily interfered with by consumer electronics then the FAA and FCC should be held responsible for making and implementing standards so that this is not a problem. There is always going to be a prick that leaves their devices on out of spite, or someone so jetlagged and clueless that they forget. So lets make sure that standards are set so that this is a non-issue.

    However, I do understand the need to at least put down devices (and books) during the safety speech for liability reasons, as well as the need to stow all items upon decent because in a crash a cell phone (or anything really) is just a large bullet and could kill someone who would have otherwise survived. Those are legit reasons, but outside of that then it should be free reign.
  • 0 Hide
    Devoteicon , June 23, 2013 10:09 AM
    You want me to turn off my phone for a few minutes? HOW. DARE. YOU.
  • 0 Hide
    falcompsx , June 23, 2013 10:44 AM
    As long as they NEVER lift the ban on talking on cell phones in the air, i'm happy.
  • Display all 13 comments.
  • 0 Hide
    eddieroolz , June 23, 2013 2:20 PM
    That's a welcome news, but only if electronics are shown as absolutely not interfering with flight equipment after a rigorous testing.
  • 0 Hide
    warmon6 , June 23, 2013 7:21 PM
    @falcompsx

    I doubt people would want to talk long on a cell phone while in the air.

    Unless cell phones and cell towers have gotten really good at switching to different towers when needed to keep a call connected and not have any interruptions in that call, I would imagine that any calling would be kept short.

    Mainly I say this because for how fast planes fly, (Boeing 747 cruses at 570 MPH), and cell phone towers have a max range of 20 to 30 miles (assuming from tower to edge).... In just a few short mins, a Boeing 747 plane could get though a 20 mile max range tower in under 4 mins.

    Assuming the Plane goes from one edge of the 20 mile max towers range to the other edge perfectly, giving 40 miles of theoretical coverage, and is traveling at 570 MPH which converts to about 9.5 Miles per Minute, (that's hoping your cell phone is good enough to pick of the tower 20 miles way) I think the estimation of under 4 mins is right but I could be wrong on..

    Basicly, unless it's a short message, I think people would get annoyed on having to redial a number multiple times to keep a long conversation. (Assuming a cell still drops called when switching towers like they did in the past.)
  • 0 Hide
    livebriand , June 23, 2013 8:50 PM
    @warmon6 I think cell towers are generally designed to communicate with devices at a lower elevation (thus why they generally put the tower on a hill), and thus using the cell network while in a phone won't work at all. (except at lower elevations) I've tried briefly taking my phone out of airplane mode on a plane, and didn't get any signal. (don't worry, I didn't leave it in that mode) I have picked up FM radio signals on planes at cruising altitude though.
  • 0 Hide
    williamf3000 , June 23, 2013 10:23 PM
    The problem with talking on a cell phone in the air is three fold. 1) The towers transmit basically horizontally with a downward tilt. Very little of the signal transmits vertically. Thus very little signal gets to a plane 30K in the air. 2) Planes do not travel via typical land routes that have a high concentration of towers. Thus, most of the time in the air there is not a tower anywhere around. 3) It is just down right rude to talk on a cell phone in such close quarters.

    As for all the other stuff, it makes ZERO sense that a tiny iPod will interfere with anything in the plane when I there is massive current flowing all around me. There are buttons above me. There is a TV in my seat, the seat in front of me and every other seat in the plane.... oh but those things are not a problem. Give me a break! If a plane was so fragile that its instruments could be fouled up from a little hand held device they would be worthless. There are MASSIVE EM signals all around. The biggest one is call the Sun.
  • 0 Hide
    cats_Paw , June 24, 2013 1:46 AM
    I can understand that i have to turn of my cell in the plane (its actually a good excuse to get some peace), but my mp3 player or my laptop with no wi-fi on?
    Well i can understand the laptop, i mean, we are landing after all, and if anythign goes wrong it could hurt someone.

    But my mp3?... Actually i asked a few times in the plane telling the steward that i was a fraid of flying and she let me use it np. But its weird that i have to say that at all.
  • 0 Hide
    CaedenV , June 24, 2013 5:11 AM
    When are they going to relax their restrictions so that we can have snakes on a plane?

    sorry... bad pun for a bad movie
  • 0 Hide
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  • 0 Hide
    warmon6 , June 24, 2013 2:05 PM
    @livebriand

    Good info. Never knew that the signals were limited to a horizontal plane but because I haven't bothered to try it out, I never looked into it much.

    Anyways, so basically we all agree that it would be pretty difficult to call while on a plane for several reasons.
  • 0 Hide
    punahou1 , June 24, 2013 2:24 PM
    Seems like everyone is ignoring basic physics/science. The plane and tower transmit and receive on completely different frequencies. These frequencies are restricted to aircraft only and are so far way from cellular frequencies that one would need a good 1,000 watts of transmission power in their cell phone and need to be standing next to the aircraft antenna.
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