New FAA Rules Let Airline Passengers Keep Electronic Devices Turned On

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-10-31

New FAA Rules Let Airline Passengers Keep Electronic Devices Turned On

You knew it was going to happen. You knew that eventually the Federal Aviation Administration would relent and you'd be able to keep reading that novel you have on your Kindle (or your iPad or your Surface) during airliner takeoffs and landings.

Now, finally, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced in an Oct. 31 press conference held in the main concourse at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport that the FAA was issuing guidelines that will allow the airlines to let you read in peace.

Just don't expect it to happen right away. In fact, it probably won't happen in 2013. Why the wait? Well this is the FAA, and nothing happens quickly. But this isn't just bureaucratic inertia. The FAA is responsible airliner flight safety. So the agency took its time to make sure that electronic devices could be handled safely. But now it will take a while to make sure that the process is implemented safely.

The next step is that each airline must certify that its aircraft can operate safely with personal electronic devices turned on in all phases of flight. Once that happens the airlines will allow passengers to use those devices, but only with some restrictions. Even if they're turned on, devices must be in Airplane Mode during takeoff and landing, for example.

The FAA has given permission for the airlines to allow WiFi operations while in flight, which some already do now. But WiFi will still be limited to altitudes above 10,000 feet and could be disabled when the pilot feels it's necessary.

There's one other little pesky rule. You still won't be allowed to use your cell phone in flight due to rules from the Federal Communications Commission. The FAA has asked the FCC to consider what type of cell phone calling to allow and under what conditions. But that hasn't happened yet.

This new ruling may come as a surprise to some airline passengers who have been told by flight crews that something as simple as turning on an iPad could cause an airliner to drop from the skies, but in fact the airlines have known for years that this isn't the case. Pilots have been using devices known as electronic flight bags for years without incident. More recently, EFB software has been available for the iPad and other devices since the iPad came out. None of these devices caused problems for air travel, either.

But there's a difference between having a couple of iPads operating in the cockpit and a planeload of electronic devices running at the same time.

New FAA Rules Let Airline Passengers Keep Electronic Device Turned On

The pilots knew that they could turn off their devices instantly if they detected interference. Turning off a planeload of iPads might be difficult and it wouldn't happen instantly.

Other things have happened as well. Modern airliners aren't as sensitive to interference as older designs were because their avionics have been designed to reject interference. In addition, modern electronic devices generate much less radio frequency interference than they once did.

The next step is that airlines will begin to certify that their airplanes can handle interference. This will require testing and that can take some time. However, airlines that are already allowing WiFi have probably already performed the necessary testing and could allow operations of personal electronic devices sooner. In addition, airlines don't need to wait until all of their airliners have been tested; they can allow the use of personal electronic devices sooner on some planes and later on others.

When devices are permitted to remain on from take off to landing on airliners, you can expect to be told to switch your device into airplane mode during those times. You may not use WiFi then and you can never use cellular connections. You will be allowed to keep holding your tablet, or you will be allowed to put it into the seat-back pocket. However you will still not be allowed to hold your laptop, which will still be required to be in the overhead luggage compartment.

Nor will you be allowed to make phone calls. You will only be allowed to send and receive SMS text messages if it can be done over WiFi, and currently only T-Mobile can do that. The FAA has some tips for passengers and some FAQs on the rules which you might find helpful.

The bad news, at least for some, is that Alec Baldwin still won't be allowed to play "Words with Friends" during take-off, an activity that got the actor tossed off an American Airlines flight last year.

The good news is that your boss won't be able to call you in flight on your cell phone. The other bad news is that you won't be able to get away from office email, at least if your flight has WiFi. But the best news is that you won't have to stop reading that novel when the plane takes off.

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