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FAA relaxes rules on in-flight use of electronic devices

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November 3, 2013

JetBlue flew the first flight under the new regulations (Photo: JetBlue)

JetBlue flew the first flight under the new regulations (Photo: JetBlue)

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On Thursday, the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) eased regulations against airline passengers using their Personal Electronic Devices (PED) during the flight. On Friday at 4:30 PM EDT, only 15 minutes after receiving FAA approval for the regulation change, JetBlue’s Flight 2302 from New York's JFK to Buffalo became the first commercial flight to allow passengers to use their PEDs gate-to-gate.

The flight crew of JetBlue 2302 were informed by email and an Aeronautical Operational Control message almost as soon as approval came through, but the change in FAA regulations took a surprisingly long time to change – 47 years, to be exact. Many people believe that the ban on PEDs dates only back to the 1990s, but the first regulations against personal electronics on planes were issued in 1966.

In the ‘60s, the worry wasn't about laptops and mobile phones, but radio transceivers, which a study panel concluded could dangerously interfere with VHF Omni Range navigation systems and similar navigation aids. This was about as far as it went in the days when airliners were mostly controlled by hydraulic systems or step motors, but when the first fly-by-wire systems came online, interference was once again front and center and the regulations became stricter.

The new regulations allow for most PED use (Source: FAA)

Though later technological advances made navigation and flight control systems less vulnerable, the electronic ecology of handheld devices expanded with the invention of mobile phones, portable computers, and their descendants. Worse, not every airline or airport is fully modern and older planes and navigation systems are often still vulnerable. This is one of the reasons why the new relaxation of the regulations depends in the end on each airline’s approval and implementation.

Previous to Thursday’s FAA announcement by Administrator Michael Huerta, airline passengers on most flights could not use their PEDs during taxi, takeoff, landing, or at an altitude below 10,000 ft (3,000 m). Now, if an airline can gain FAA approval, it can allow gate-to-gate use; something that the FAA sees many more airlines doing by the end of the year.

The FAA pointed out that devices will still need to be held or stowed during takeoff and landing, and that there would still be some limited exceptions, such as in rare times of low visibility when the plane must rely on radio beacons. In addition, the prohibition against voice mobile phone calls would remain in place because of separate FCC regulations against airborne calls. In the case of phones, the FAA wants them placed in Airplane mode or with service disabled, though Bluetooth and Wi-Fi functions are still allowed.

Regulations were set up in 1996 to avoid interfering with navigation beacons (image Wikipe...

Regulations were set up in 1996 to avoid interfering with navigation beacons (image Wikipedia/Ben Pirard)

The FAA says that its decision was based on information from a panel made up of the airlines, aviation manufacturers, passengers, pilots, flight attendants, and the mobile technology industry. From this, the PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) concluded that many airlines could meet that standards necessary to allow the use of PEDs, and the FAA sent out new guidelines to help airlines fast track approvals.

“We believe [Thursday’s] decision honors both our commitment to safety and consumer’s increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of their flights,” says Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “These guidelines reflect input from passengers, pilots, manufacturers, and flight attendants, and I look forward to seeing airlines implement these much anticipated guidelines in the near future.”

Sources: FAA, JetBlue

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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13 Comments

Finally a nod to common sense in the aviation industry!

To think an aircraft that could be brought down by a mobile phone is just plain foolishness.

Australian
4th November, 2013 @ 12:46 am PST

There are many cases where RF interference has caused problems; an airplane is a terrible place to find out out about it by accident.

Slowburn
4th November, 2013 @ 04:13 am PST

what about texting?

P.E.T.
4th November, 2013 @ 08:27 am PST

@ slowburn

All too true. There are times to bow to political pressure and times not to. This is one of the latter.

From what I have seen on the issue, I doubt that I will feel very safe when flying in future until I see some scientific evidence that RF interference is no longer the problem that it most definitely has been in the past.

Mel Tisdale
4th November, 2013 @ 10:16 am PST

@P.E.T. - Texting generally requires cellular access, so no, unless you magically have WiFi. And tethering to create a local WiFi hotspot *also* uses cellular data...

David Bell
4th November, 2013 @ 10:26 am PST

Many flights have in-flight wifi.

pwndecaf
4th November, 2013 @ 02:26 pm PST

There's no way I can turn off my cell-radio only - "airplane mode" disables cell + wifi + bluetooth all at once.

Google. Apple. Are you listening? We need some new settings options guys,

christopher
4th November, 2013 @ 06:49 pm PST

RF has caused problems with Avionics? Would that be the high powered VHF or HF radios on board the aircraft? Or would it be the High powered RADAR systems they utilise on board the aircraft?

If RF was so dangerous, they wouldn't use any of these things because they produce RF in substantial quantities.

In reality these systems are carefully engineered and tested exhaustively to ensure they have adequate shielding and RF protection measures so they do not interfere with other devices or vice versa.

The biggest risk has always been during the refueling as all RF can potentially induce currents into a resonant conductor and if these currents were significant these conductors could possibly cause a spark. The same logic why they don't want you to use a mobile phone at a petrol station. Despite the theory, it is so unlikely that it is nothing short of bizzare that they bother.

People regularly leave their phones despite the warnings and the pilots don't ground the aircraft while they search for the offenders. If it was really a risk, they would be negligent by not running scanners before departing the terminals and finding any offending devices.

The saddest part about the relaxation of the regulations is it will take years before Australia's Aviation authority - the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), moves in the same direction. Those in Australia's Aviation industry know CASA has an unofficial moto - "We're not happy until you're not happy".

Australian
5th November, 2013 @ 01:23 am PST

@christopher. I just did a test. I switched my Google Nexus 4 to airplane mode, then went and turned bluetooth and WiFi back on. It works. I can surf the web via WiFi but not make a phone call.

splatman
5th November, 2013 @ 02:51 am PST

@Mel, There is a huge difference between the milliwatts of transmitter power used for WiFi and Bluetooth, and the watts used by the cellular transmitter in your 'phone. If I thought for a moment the lower powers of WiFi and BT could upset the avionics, I'd never get on the plane.

I welcome this sensible decision by the FAA, and hope it filters through toAustralia sometime soon. Being told the other to turn off a standard Kindle, that runs on flea power, is totally silly.

As an electronics engineer I know how strict the rules are for making my products immune to Electro Magnetic Interference (EMI). No doubt stricter rules apply to aircraft than to the industrial, solidly ground based stuff I work with.

splatman
5th November, 2013 @ 03:00 am PST

Just be glad that the airlines did not figure out a way to charge more for your new found freedom!

donwine
5th November, 2013 @ 06:26 am PST

@ Australian

Before new systems are put into aircraft they are thoroughly tested and unexpected problems have popped up occasionally. Why would you think that not testing for problems from electronic devises is a good idea because they belong to passengers not the airline?

The power of a transmission is less important than the susceptibility to the frequency.

Slowburn
5th November, 2013 @ 08:59 am PST

lucky for us, now all planes are instantly completely immune to anything a phone can beam at it... not even a lightning string within 5 miles from any plane will now have an effect on them, heck even a direct stike has a change of not doing much damage ether... amazing the power of the human mind, is it not...

Michiel Mitchell
5th November, 2013 @ 09:52 am PST
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