Might the new in-flight electronics rules be a bad thing?

wifiThe 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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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.


  1. I’m not too worried about the interference because I think so many people ignore the no transmitting mode right now anyway. It seems like a regular occurrence that I hear the beep of a phone receiving a text/email on final approach.

    We live in a world where we are constantly reevaluating ourselves in terms of who can do what and when (for example, texting while driving) and I don’t see this having any discernible difference in safety. Definitely not on a consistent basis.

    I think that the flight attendants should just ignore people and there devices and everything will be fine. Inspecting devices for airplane mode would be rather silly.

  2. I’d just keep things really simple. eBooks and tablets below 10k, fine – however no headphones and no laptops (as tray tables would still need to be up). This would balance the majority of the risks mentioned, whilst still providing a big step forward for passengers!

  3. Currently you can’t place laptops in seat back pockets or hold them during TO or landing. I imagine the these restrictions will continue due to the weight and size of the objects involved. As such you’ll still have to put your laptop back in your bag during those phases of flight.

  4. I think you raise valid points. I think that really it’s OK to go 15 minutes of my life separated from electronic devices from time to time at takeoff and landing. Yes if I could have free wifi I’d probably be all over it, but I guess I’m just not as addicted as some. A flight is a bit of a break for me, and often a welcome one.

  5. Seth, I think you inadvertently hit on what I’ll call the “hypocrisy” of the current rule. The stated reason for the current rule is the potential for electronic devices to interfere with aircraft systems, etc in the critical phases of flight. However, we all know that’s B.S. and that my Kindle in airplane mode has zero effect on the flight deck. The more valid point, as you say, is people not paying attention to flight attendants, or a bunch of electronic devices flying through the air in the case of an emergency. But that’s never been the stated reason for the rule, although that’s the much better justification for no electronic devices below 10,000 feet!

    If the concern is safety, the rule needs to be changed from “no electronic devices” (because let’s be honest–the guy with the paper version of the Wall Street Journal spread open, blocking his entire view of the cabin, is just as likely to miss a key safety announcement as the person reading the paper on their Kindle) to “you’re not allowed to be doing anything during the safety briefing and first few minutes of flight.”

    Having said that, I don’t follow your point about flight attendants needing to now judge whether something is in airplane mode vs. on/off. They don’t do that now (how could they?), so why would that change? Currently, if a flight attendant can’t see an electronic device, it’s “off” to them. Every single person can have their phone in airplane mode (and I suspect most do), but if it’s in the seat back pocket, the FA’s have no idea. This rule really changes nothing in that regard, in my mind.

    1. The current system is easy for FAs to judge, Andrew; a device is either on or off. The new rules would have levels of permissible use which is much harder to determine at a glance. Today anyone using a device is breaking the rules. With these rules the FAs would potentially need to determine if the use involves the radio or not. That could be a pain.

  6. According to the NY Times (1), the reason for the original rule decades ago was because people were using their CB radios on planes and these devices were interfering with the electronics on board the plane. ( 😉 ) Things have changed. Planes are electronically harder (though not 100% harden of course), devices aren’t pumping out watts of power, … . According to the same source (2) the reason cell phones are not allowed is because of the problems incurred with phones in planes and their cell towers not the electronics on the plane.

    If anything this decision will make things easier for Flight Attendants. If you are not using your phone as a phone in a manner obvious as such to the FA then the FA has fulfilled their obligation.

    True the time a plane spends under 10,000 feet is orders of magnitude more likely to incur an incident demanding total attention from everyone and using the newly allowed device will distract from these incidents. But sleeping, reading and many more things are as likely or much more likely to prevent this as are playing with these devices. If impediment upon safety is the argument then these activities should be forbidden also.

    (1) http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/answers-to-readers-questions-about-electronics-on-planes/

    (2) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/technology/faa-nears-new-rules-on-devices.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    1. I completely understand the technical reasons behind the rules, but I do not believe they are the only reasons. As for reading or sleeping being risky, that’s arguably true. But neither of those involve behavior which makes it much, much more difficult for the passenger to hear a PA announcement if one should happen. And neither involves power cords or bulky items (save the occasional hard-back book reader) which will prevent others from evacuating the plane.

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