The panel convened by the FAA one year ago to consider changes in rule on in-flight electronics usage is reportedly ready to deliver their final report to the Agency. And while the final details are not yet entirely known, multiple reports indicate that the recommendations will include the provision that gate-to-gate usage will be allowed but that connectivity will still be prohibited below 10,000 feet. This hybrid option seems to be a nod to concerns about the potential for interference as well as the performance limitations of some in-flight connectivity systems at lower altitudes (gogo says their system isn’t optimized to operate there; satellite-based operators suggest they can adjust their systems to make it work). And so there is a compromise brewing.
That raises the potential of conflicts and challenges in the industry. Flight Attendants would now be required to judge if the devices are in “flight mode” rather than simply on or off. Given the issues the current policy – one which is much more clearly defined – presents for enforcement on a regular basis it is easy to believe that the new policy has the potential to be even more challenging. Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal a prior draft of the report included the warning that
“it would be very difficult for the standard set of passengers on an aircraft” to confirm that all of their devices were “in some type of safe airplane operational mode.”
And that’s before you try to get flight attendants to try to check those settings and explain whether the device is in compliance or not.
So that’s a problem, I suppose, but there’s another issue which no one is talking about. Maybe that’s because most of the media is happy to embrace the opportunity to have more chances to serve up their content to readers or because they know readers are chomping at the bit to legally use these devices in flight. But no one is talking about the potential safety issues of having these devices out. A mobile phone or eBook isn’t going to present much more risk than a hard back book would in terms of acting as a projectile. But a five pound laptop is a much different beast. And that’s all before you plug in ear buds, crank up the volume and completely tune out from the safety briefing or other announcements being made by the crew. Or before you try to stow a 15″ laptop which you’ve wedged in between your hips and the seat in front of you to watch a movie or do some work during take-off when the call comes to evacuate the plane.
Yes, I want to use my devices fully connected from gate-to-gate. I want connectivity everywhere and I believe that the industry is moving in that direction with astonishing speed: in just over 5 years more than 2000 planes have been equipped with the gogo systems alone, not to mention Row44 and the various long-haul services. Still, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you necessarily should do it. Making a change which reduces safety – not because of electronics interference but because of of passenger distraction or impeding the evacuation routes – might not be such a great one in the long run. Making a change which puts passengers even more at odds with flight attendants over device settings is similarly troubling.
This rule change is coming; that’s going to mean some interesting new policies from the airlines in 2014 and beyond. I’ll likely benefit from the changes overall. But I’m still not entirely sure they’re a good thing.
What do you think? Is the safety risk overblown? Does any of it matter given how many devices remain on today anyways?
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