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FAA Panel Recommends Easing Restrictions on Electronics in Flight

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In the ongoing saga of why Federal Aviation Administration regulations require airline passengers to turn off all electronic devices until an altitude of 10,000 feet is reached, a 28-member FAA panel has now recommended that these restrictions be eased (for background, see Steve McCabe’s “Why Do Airlines Require Us to Turn Off Our Gadgets?,” 5 October 2012).

In short, the report recommends that electronic devices such as mobile phones, tablets, and ebook readers be allowed at all times, but that any devices with communication features be placed into “airplane mode” until that 10,000-foot altitude is reached.

The main concern is enforcement — it’s hard enough for flight attendants to ensure that devices are powered down, but making certain they’re in airplane mode would likely be even harder. Nonetheless, the recommendation seems like an entirely reasonable compromise between safety concerns and passenger desires.

If the FAA adopts the panel’s suggestions, it would thus be acceptable to read a book or play a game on your iPad or iPhone while waiting on the runway for takeoff and right afterwards, as long as the device is in airplane mode. Checking email or browsing the Web on the runway would not be kosher, due to the need for cellular or Wi-Fi connectivity, but would be allowed via on-board Wi-Fi, when present, after reaching 10,000 feet.

The next step is up to the FAA, which has received the report and will review it before deciding on any rule changes.

The ban on mobile phone use at any time during flight remains, in part because it’s unrelated to the issue of electronics use during flight. The latter is about avionics safety, whereas telecommunications regulators prohibit mobile phone use because cellular signals from in-flight phones could cause network confusion by lighting up multiple cell towers on the ground — for more on this, read Rich Mogull’s “Peering Inside a Mobile Phone Network” (6 October 2008).


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