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

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-06-22

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

The announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration in January that the agency was convening a panel to study the feasibility of loosening regulations restricting the in-flight use of personal electronic devices was greeted with delight by many air travelers.

It was also greeted with dismay by many others who wanted peace and quiet more than they wanted to be on the phone. What neither group realized was that all the FAA is changing are guidelines. There will be no substantive change in rules.

That’s correct. Despite the hoopla from the Wall Street Journal and other media, the FAA isn’t really changing anything. Here are some things you probably don’t know about personal electronics on airliners, but that will help you understand what’s going on.

First, despite what the flight attendants will tell you, it’s not illegal to use personal electronics on an airliner. The FAA has no rule against it. What the FAA’s rules say is that it’s up to the airline to decide whether a specific device can be used and then the FAA supplies a set of guidelines created in 2000 that recommend that most electronics be turned off below 10,000 feet.

But the airline doesn’t have to follow that recommendation and in many cases it does not. The use of iPads in the cockpit is ubiquitous, for example, because pilots find them significantly more useful than the books of charts and diagrams they previously used. Until recently, you’d see pilots with thick briefcases full of navigation charts, a specialized type of chart called an approach plate, airport reference information, runway diagrams and FAA regulations. Those books weigh about 35 pounds.

Carrying them around an airport was bad enough, but getting the material out while in flight so the pilot could refer to it was worse. The only way to make it workable was to create a stack of the paper information you expected to use in flight, attach it to a clipboard that you strapped to your thigh, and hope that nothing changed.

Enter the iPad and the EFB (electronic flight bag). The EFB is a special set of electronic reference materials that includes everything from fuel predictions to runway diagrams. But the whole database of all of this material is still on the iPad. So if you have to divert to another airport, then that information is right there, too.

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

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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