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Electronic devices in air may fly if FAA approves

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

According to the tech website TG Daily (no relation to the T-G!), the Federal Aviation Administration is going to reconsider the total ban on electronic devices during takeoff and landing of commmercial aircraft.

A rigorous testing procedure will be tried, and if certain types of devices are shown to have no impact on the plane, it's possible that the FAA will allow them.

But if the testing must be done on a model-by-model basis, there's some concern that by the time a particular device has been approved, it will already be out-of-date.

The idea behind the ban is the supposed danger that electronic devices might interfere with the plane's navigation or other electronic systems. All electronic devices are banned during takeoff and landing, and mobile phones use is banned throughout the flight. To quote TG Daily, "There's some evidence that electromagnetic interference from cellphones and similar devices can cause problems with on-board systems. However, there's also quite a bit of evidence that it doesn't. And no accident has ever been blamed on the use of such devices."

Airlines and mobile phone carriers have little incentive to try to change the rules on mobile phone use. Airlines make money off selling their own dedicated pay-as-you-go phone service, in which passengers can make calls from the plane for a premium price. And mobile phone carriers apparently face technical problems when a mobile phone is used on a fast-moving jet aircraft, since it can be in contact with several different tower "cells" at the same time and pass quickly from one to another.

But even if you eliminate cell phones from the equation, there are still plenty of devices that airline travelers want to use to pass the time -- including more and more tablets and e-readers. With many smartphones functioning as mini-computers, with games, music players and other features, most smartphones and tablets have an "airplane mode" in which you can turn off the phone's ability to send or receive a signal while continuing to use its other apps and features. Individual airlines may have their own rules about whether to permit phones to be used in "airplane mode."

These devices are perfectly fine to use once an airplane has taken off and is at cruising altitude. An announcement is made by the flight crew or the flight attendants once the devices are OK to use.

What the FAA is apparently going to study is whether or not these non-phone devices are so benign that they can be used even during takeoff and landing. Nick Bilton of the New York Times, who supports lifting the ban, stated in a November column that "Reporters I've spoken with who travel with the president of the United States on Air Force One told me that the Secret Service never requires anyone to power down their electronics before takeoff." Bilton sees that as proof that there's little if any real threat from such devices -- one might assume that any plane carrying the President would take every possible precaution.

Some devices are already allowed, even during takeoff and landing: portable voice recorders, hearing aids, pacemakers (good thing!) and electric shavers. Bilton says that many of these are just as complex as the banned devices, and if they don't cause a problem with the plane, there's a good chance the other devices don't either. Bilton also claims there's more chance of electronic interference from turning devices on and off than there is from using them -- and the current rules mean that a lot of devices get turned on at the same time, once the flight crew makes the announcement that the plane is at cruising altitude and electronic devices can be used again.

The FAA plans to test tablets and e-readers in a wide variety of situations, using all of the various models of commercial aircraft, and TG Daily says the device manufacturers will probably be asked to pay for the testing. But if changes can be made to the policy, it could be a small improvement in the experience of air travel, which has lost a lot of its joy since the post 9/11 security measures.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.

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John I. Carney
Loose Talk / Charge Complete
John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.