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In-Flight Electronics Ban: Important or Obsolete?

laptop airplane"Wheels up!" read the tweet, as yet another flier defied the "no cell phones" rule on takeoff to send out this truly unnecessary status update.

The tweeter has had good ... well, let's say bad company of late in the form of celebrities who want to keep playing drunken games of Words with Friends, or who want to keep texting, or who create scenes in first class because they just can't turn their gadgets off.

But of late they have been joined by CEO's of massive companies -- a recent report on GeekWire quotes Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as having done experiments loading planes with Kindles to test interference with in-flight instruments. It is a fair assumption that the experiments were not conducted on a commercial flight, but on something like Bezos' private plane; still, countless similarly informal "experiments" take place every single day over the skies of the United States -- by all of us.

An informal straw poll of folks I know who travel a lot resulted in only one person claiming they had never left their phone on during a takeoff or landing, whether on purpose or by accident. After cramming it deep in a bag before boarding, it is easy enough simply to forget your phone is on. Or maybe you were glancing at your e-reader while on the tarmac, and you fell asleep, leaving the reader fully operational during takeoff. And no one ever seemse the wiser -- I've never heard a pilot come over the intercom to scold passengers for the erratic instrument readings caused by a teenager's iPod Touch.

My straw poll skewed higher than the 40 percent of offenders found by a similar poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal, but still -- the WSJ ran the numbers a bit more completely and concluded that, if these percentages held, less than one in 100 quadrillion flights will have zero passengers with a phone turned on.

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Perhaps the most compelling evidence against the electronics ban is from airline pilots themselves, who are now using iPads and other tablets to help them fly the darn planes. They're not simply running checklists and reading scripts -- American Airlines is currently rolling out a plan to replace with an "electronic flight bag" every single paper chart, log book and other reference material used by their pilots with iPads by the end of 2012. (Note that American estimates an annual fuel savings of $1.2 million thanks to replacing the 35-pound paper-based materials with the one- to two-pound iPad.)

The truth is, most of us have our doubts about the dangers of the use of "portable electronics" -- or "anything with a battery," as the in-flight announcements have evolved to describe them. The rules are capriciously enforced; I almost always take photos during takeoff and landing, and my DSLR camera has a battery, and I have never had a flight attendant object to picture taking out the window. And it's not the batteries that are to blame, anyway -- no flashlight has ever emitted a signal that could disrupt an aircraft instrument.

So why does the ban exist? The history of the issue is somewhat long and tortured, and goes back further than you might think, but originally the rule was created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), not the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It was understood at the time largely to have been instituted not for safety reasons but to keep airborne cell phone users, who had no "sightline" issues, from taking up too many connections on limited cell reception antennae on the ground.

Late last month, the FAA issued a call for comments on Passenger Use of Portable Electronic Devices On Board Aircraft." The crux of the FAA's inquiry is to gather more or less definitive information on whether cell phone use is safe, how airlines might test for it and more. Note this critical sentence from the document: "The Agency stresses that the existing regulations allow the [aircraft] operator to authorize the use of PEDs, and that no specific FAA approval is required." That is, this rule is still an FCC rule, not an FAA rule -- the FAA is involved only because airlines are involved in this specific instance.

So when you do leave your phone or tablet on during takeoff, it feels like a truly victimless crime, or like simply disobeying an antiquated, silly law that is still on the books -- like the North Carolina law that prohibits bingo games lasting longer than five hours. (Yes, that does exist; see DumbLaws.com.)

You Must All Now Turn Off Your Books
Is it such a big deal to have to turn off your tablet for the first and last 10,000 feet or so of your flight? Two years ago, just after the original iPad was announced, I saw a cartoon depicting folks looking at tablets and Kindles in flight, while a flight attendant announced, "In preparation for landing, please turn off your books."

This really seems to capture the unique nature of the tablet/e-reader/gadget complaint. We're stuck on this plane with absolutely nothing to do, and almost no space in which to do it, and so we put our bulky books on a slim e-reader to make things a little less grueling -- and you say we can't even use them? Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!

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A short list of the benefits of allowing electronic devices at all times:

tablet airport- Flight attendants will no longer have to use their time, energy and goodwill to enforce a useless rule.

- Much as fuel costs will go down when pilots are carrying less paper around, they could go down even further when passengers stop bringing paper magazines, newspapers and books onboard.

- The clean-up demands created by abandoned newspapers and magazines will be greatly reduced.

- Passengers will be happier -- whether they are kids, parents with kids, people sitting next to kids, people completely engrossed in a book, people listening to meditation recordings to overcome fear of flying, etc.

What's the Hold-Up?
So public opinion, our own anecdotal evidence and even direct pilot experience point toward a time when e-readers, tablets, cell phones in airplane mode, and other electronic devices will be fully permissible in flight, at all times. But if we are all doing it, and the pilots are all doing it, why not simply change the rule now and move forward?

At present, the iPad is the only "FAA-approved tablet as an Electronic Flight Bag in approved aircraft," as noted in the American Airlines press release linked above. And therein lies the rub -- by its own rules, technically the FAA would need to test every single device that wanted approval for use during takeoff and landing. We're not just talking about testing one iPhone. The agency would have to test the iPhone 3, and the 3G, and the 4, and the 4S, and now the 5 -- and then each generation of the iPad -- and then perhaps test each one in airplane mode and in regular mode -- and then do the same for every single device that passengers hope to use during takeoff and landing.

To boot, they would have to do all these test on flights carrying no passengers, whew. With e-readers, tablets and other similar devices only very recently becoming widespread, it is fair to assume that the number of disparate devices by an expanding number of manufacturers will multiply rapidly as the market for them expands. It is a Sysyphean task, without question.

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Fair Enough -- But When Can We Read Our Books During Landing?
There are some encouraging indications that the FAA could make some headway in the near future.

First, the airlines have strong incentive to help make this happen, for the operational and financial reasons outlined above. Many airlines have offered to make aircraft and other resources available to the FAA for testing of any kind.

Second, the device manufacturers should be motivated to make their products safe for aircraft use, as they stand to sell more devices, more electronic books, more movies, more apps, more everything when travelers can be sure of finishing their books or movies before landing.

The FAA is being more than usually proactive on the issue; whereas testing for changes of this type are typically the burden of the airlines, the FAA is conducting the tests itself.

And finally, the traveling public is paying attention and simply wants this to happen. These are three powerful forces aligned toward pushing things forward -- a few of which also come with a thick pack of lobbyists (airlines, ecommerce companies, publishing companies, device manufacturers, you get the idea).

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Staying Off the Slippery Slope to Airborne Cell Phone Use
Other than safety concerns, the most common objection to the relaxing of electronics usage is along the lines of "a flight is the only time I don't have to listen to some loudmouth blathering at full volume about work, money or getting his dishwasher fixed."

Not to worry. So far, the FAA is focusing solely on electronic readers, tablets and cell phones in "airplane mode," the goal being simply to let people read their books and watch their movies throughout the flight. No one is talking about cell phone use -- and while I am decidedly pro-electronic device, let's hope no one ever does.

Poll: How Do You Feel About Cell Phones on Planes?

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler


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