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

NEWS ANALYSIS: The FAA’s rules about the use of electronics on airliners are vague, contradictory and hard to enforce, but that doesn’t mean you will soon be able to start using your cell phone while flying.

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...