In-Flight Cell Phone Ban Sure to Continue Despite FAA Rule Review

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-06-22 Print this article Print

So if pilots can use an iPad in flight, including during takeoff and landing, why can’t the passengers? That’s always been a question that’s been difficult to answer. And the fact is there’s really not a good reason. Most electronic devices such as tablets, e-readers, games and PDAs don’t interfere with the airplane’s navigation systems.

But there’s a caveat. Those devices have to be used in “Airplane Mode” during flight. That means that you can’t transmit WiFi or cellular signals because those potentially could interfere. Likewise, you can’t use your cell phone while flying.

But the cell phone restriction is also a limitation of the Federal Communication Commission. The reason is that cell phones aloft can trigger a lot of cell towers at the same time, causing havoc with the network. Of course, I should note that most modern cell towers won’t work if you’re in an airplane anyway because the antennas are aimed at the ground. People in tall buildings have this problem as well—their cell phones don’t work when they’re on high floors.

Also, even if the FAA changes its guidelines, the airlines have to decide to allow the use of electronic devices. You can assume that this will not happen overnight. If the airline management decides that there’s any potential increase in risk, they’ll want to move slowly. To some extent, this will depend on experience. So you can shortly expect WiFi devices to be allowed at altitudes above 10,000 feet because some airlines already allow that and have experienced no problems as a result.

Chances are also pretty good that things like tablets and e-readers will be allowed fairly quickly as well. But some things won’t be allowed, perhaps ever. For example, you probably still won’t be allowed to use your laptop on takeoff and landing, not because of radio interference, but because they’re large and heavy and require the tray table to be open, so it’s a safety issue. And don’t expect cell phone use to be allowed any time soon, if ever.

But all of that doesn’t mean that the FAA is dragging its feet. “The FAA recognizes consumers are intensely interested in the use of personal electronics aboard aircraft,” an FAA spokesperson told eWEEK in an email. “That is why we tasked a government-industry group to examine the safety issues and the feasibility of changing the current restrictions.” That group’s report will arrive in about two months. Meanwhile, if you must talk on the phone while you travel, there’s always the train.



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