The FAA may (finally!) relax in-flight electronics use limits

Put down that hollowed out copy of War & Peace! Pretty soon, you may not have to hide your iPad mini during takeoff and landing. The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority is considering a set of draft recommendations urging the regulatory body to ease restrictions on the use of personal electronics at low altitudes.

The report comes after the FAA tasked a working group last August to study the safety of using portable electronics in flight. Under a recent draft proposal from the working group, devices such as e-readers could be left on for the entire flight, according a report by The Wall Street Journal. The working group was instructed not to consider easing FAA restrictions prohibiting phone calls at low levels.

Rumors of the FAA easing in-fight restrictions are encouraging, but don’t bet on playing Angry Birds during your next descent into Dulles just yet.

“We tasked a government-industry group to examine the safety issues and the feasibility of changing the current restrictions,” an FAA spokesperson tells TechHive. “At the group's request, the FAA has granted a two-month extension to complete the additional work necessary for the safety assessment. We will wait for the group to finish its work before we determine next steps.”

The group’s final recommendations aren’t expected to be submitted to the FAA before September, the Journal says.

Let them read Kindle

While the FAA could decide against following the working group’s recommendations, easing the current blanket prohibition on in-flight portable electronics at low altitudes is long overdue. Under the current rules, pretty much anything that can transmit a signal, has a screen, and runs on battery power must be shut off or put into “airplane mode” when an aircraft is below 10,000 feet.

The basic argument against using your smartphone during landing and takeoff is that all those devices whizzing and whirring in the cabin could interfere with the airplane’s navigation systems. But that rationale was shown to be false in a late 2011 article by Nick Bilton at The New York Times . Bilton visited EMT Labs, an independent testing facility, to see what kind of interference our gadgets were putting out that could help bring down a plane. The result? Nada.

“The power coming off a Kindle is completely minuscule and can’t do anything to interfere with a plane,” EMT Labs chief Jay Gandhi told Bilton at the time.

If you can’t take the lab geeks word for it, how about your own experience? If you’ve been on a plane with a tablet or smartphone recently, chances are you have sinned against the FAA’s rules at least once. In the past year, 99 percent of adult airline passengers took at least one personal electronic device into the aircraft cabin, according to a recent study by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Among the 99 percent, 30 percent forgot to turn off their devices during landing and takeoff, and 61 percent of those devices left on were smartphones. Oops.

Yes, yes, the study was commissioned in part by the CEA, and clearly a group that runs the Consumer Electronics (CES) tradeshow every year has a bias towards easing the FAA’s rules. But let’s inject some homespun common sense into the discussion. Raise your hand if you are part of the 30 percent that has forgotten to switch off your phone during landing and takeoff. Yeah, my hand is up too. Did your plane go down? Mine neither. Huh.

It is well past time to overhaul the FAA’s rules governing portable electronics. It’s great that the FAA’s working group is taking some extra time to ensure their recommendations are safe. But in an era when iPads are replacing navigation charts in the cockpit, perhaps it’s time to allow us cabin dwellers to view spreadsheets, read e-books, and play games regardless of altitude.

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