Could broader use of personal electronics be coming to flights?


The FAA took a significant step this week towards potentially increasing the use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) on flights. The agency announced that they will seek both public and industry input this fall on the use of PEDs and the potential impact to safety as well as the operational integrity of airplanes. The end goal of this effort is to see if the rules about PED usage, first crafted in the 1960s and most recently updated in mid-2000s should be changed again. The public comment period will last 60 days and should begin this week. The industry-government committee will convene later in the year and meet for 6 months before making any recommendations. And then the FAA will have to evaluate and decide which to implement. Actual implementation by airlines will likely take longer. So don’t expect to be playing Words with Friends during the pre-flight briefing anytime soon.

In 1966 the FAA’s move was based on the premise that the airlines, not the Agency, were better suited to figure out what devices would be safe on their planes. The FAA also wanted to avoid the obligation of testing all devices:

The FAA also recognized that for it to place requirements upon itself to conduct or verify tests of every conceivable PED, as an alternative to a determination made by the operator, would thereby place an excessive and unnecessary burden on the agency.

By deflecting that burden the FAA essentially created an environment where no PEDs would be tested or approved for use as the testing requirements were also too great for the airlines. It seems, however, that things have changed in the past 45 years. The FAA is willing to look at the situation again and some of what they’re considering seems quite reasonable. The FAA recognizes that both the PEDs and the avionics systems are very different now than they were when the rules were first established. To that end, the Agency is now looking for input from all stakeholders regarding changing these rules.

Recognizing that some passengers may wish to use their devices throughout a flight, the FAA is requesting comments regarding the FAA’s policies, guidance, and procedures that aircraft operators use to determine whether to allow a particular PED for usage during flight.

Even approved devices are generally not allowed to be used during taxi, takeoff and landing. As airlines start to do things like switch to electronic flight bags – using iPads rather than paper documentation – which have the electronics in use throughout the flight it becomes more difficult to claim that passengers cannot use the devices due to interference reasons. But that’s not the only concern. The FAA specifically highlights distraction and projectile potential as risks, too. These are two of the nine areas where the FAA is seeking specific input:

Passenger perspectives on use of PEDs.  Increased access and usage of PEDs may distract passengers during crewmember safety briefings and instructions. In addition, PED usage may have an adverse impact on flight and cabin crew responsibilities and duties.  In 2005, the FCC solicited comments on the potential to expand the use of cellular phones in flight and received responses from passengers concerned about the use of cell phones by other passengers.  One of the main concerns expressed by the public comment was the fear of passenger disruptions caused by cell phone use in a crowded public conveyance. 

  • If some PEDs are found to be compatible with aircraft systems, should there be restrictions on the use of PEDs for other reasons? 
  • Should voice communications using other technologies such as voice over IP be limited or restricted?
  • Should aircraft operators be required to publish their PED policies?

PED article retention risk considerations.  Personal belongings must be stowed for takeoff, approach and landing, to reduce the risk of injury from projectiles and to ensure rapid egress in the event of an emergency.  Some PEDs are large enough to be of concern for egress, while smaller handheld devices may have risks comparable to a small book. 

  • If some PEDs are found to be compatible with aircraft systems, should requirements to stow PEDs for takeoff, approach, landing and abnormal conditions exist nonetheless to prevent personal injury? 

It is somewhat concerning that the Agency is still considering setting policies which would limit technologies for reasons other than technical or safety purposes. Alas, it seems that is part of the process. It will be interesting to see if the comments this time around differ from those the FCC received in 2005.

Change is slow to come with the FAA. At least they’ve started the ball rolling on this one once again.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

4 Comments

  1. The distraction-during-the-safety-briefing issue and the possible-projectile issue are not limited to PEDs. The same problems with those issues apply to books, newspapers, cans of soda. If those are going to continue to be valid reasons for the restrictions on PEDs (and I’m not necessarily arguing that they shouldn’t be), then they should formulate a rule that addresses the root cause of distractions and flying items and doesn’t unfairly discriminate against PEDs.

  2. Being a Ham Radio operator and in Electronic communications all my life I have never seen anything that the public uses that will mess up any aircraft electronics.
    The radio communications that the aircraft has and uses is very old AM vhf type except for the long range HF radios. The Nav systems are new up to date equipment. So all this stuff about it inter fearing with the aircraft com systems is not true.

  3. I could never understand why we were restricted from our toys on planes in the first place.

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