FAA Studying the Safety of Personal Electronic Devices on Airplanes

The FAA is launching a working group to study whether PEDs-other than cell phones-can be used safely aboard flights and whether current policies should be changed.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is taking a new look at longtime in-flight safety policies that have banned the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) aboard airliners, a move that would hearten the legion of business travelers who carry a widening array of devices with them when they fly.

One key issue that won't be up for discussion, though, is the existing ban on in-flight cell phone use, which will continue indefinitely, according to the FAA.

To study the issue of other PEDs, the FAA is creating a working group-the Aviation Rulemaking Committee-made up of government and industry leaders who will examine existing rules and procedures regulating the devices and consider all sides of the issue to decide whether policy changes are possible, according to a statement from the FAA.

"With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "Safety is our highest priority, and we must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight."

Currently, passengers on aircraft in the United States are instructed to turn off their PEDs, including cell phones, laptop computers and gaming systems, for takeoffs and landings. Some devices may be used again once a flight is at cruising level, including laptops and gaming systems. Cell phone use is presently not permitted at all until the aircraft has landed, under FAA rules.

Cell phone use aboard aircraft isn't being addressed by the FAA because of existing rules from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which prohibit the practice. The FCC's "primary concern is that a cell phone, used while airborne, would have a much greater transmitting range than a land mobile unit" and would interfere with other cell phone transmissions, according to an FAA Advisory Circular.

The new PED working group will be created and start its work this fall, according to the FAA. It will look at myriad issues, "including the testing methods aircraft operators use to determine which new technologies passengers can safely use aboard aircraft and when they can use them," the FAA stated.

The working group will also work to determine technological standards that could guide the future use of PEDs during any phase of flight, the agency said. Once those recommendations are assembled, they will be presented to the FAA.

"We're looking for information to help air carriers and operators decide if they can allow more widespread use of electronic devices in today's aircraft," acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. "We also want solid safety data to make sure tomorrow's aircraft designs are protected from interference."

The government–industry group will meet for six months and will include representatives from the mobile technology and aviation manufacturing industries, pilot and flight attendant groups, airlines and passenger associations.

Public input on the issue is also being sought on current PED policies for publication in the Federal Register, according to the FAA.

The working group will look at potential interference from PEDs and how it can affect aircraft systems in flight. "The potential for aircraft interference depends on the aircraft and its electrical and electronic systems, as well as the type of PED being used," according to the FAA. "Prior to fly-by-wire flight controls, the primary concern was the susceptibility of sensitive aircraft communication and navigation radio receivers to spurious radio-frequency emissions from PEDs. Many of these aircraft using this older technology are still in service and are as susceptible today to interference as they were when they first entered service."

The introduction of new kinds of PEDs, including e-readers, is also a reason for the creation of the study, said the FAA. "PEDs have changed considerably in the past few decades and output a wide variety of signals. Some devices do not transmit or receive any signals but generate low-power, radio-frequency emissions. Other PEDs, such as e-readers, are only active in this manner during the short time that a page is being changed. Most portable electronic devices have Internet connectivity that includes transmitting and receiving signals wirelessly using radio waves, such as WiFi,Bluetoothand various other cellular technologies. These devices transmit high-powered emissions and can generate spurious signals at undesired frequencies, particularly if the device is damaged."

Incidents with passengers using PEDs and running into rules violations on airplanes have become commonplace nowadays.

Last December, actor Alec Baldwin was removed from a flight after he reportedly refused to turn his smartphone off while the aircraft he had boarded was sitting at a gate prior to departure.