For more than a decade, cell phones and laptops have been important tools for business people on the go, and during the last five years, tablets and smartphones have also become standard gear for the peripatetic businessperson.
But stepping on a commercial airliner now renders useless all those productivity tools of the 21st century. Currently, passengers have to turn off all their electronic devices for takeoff and landing and whenever the plane is at an altitude of below 10,000 feet, leaving travelers with little more technology to do their business than those who travelled on the Mayflower. Airline travelers have to go from spreadsheets to scribbling on napkins for performing financial calculations.
Such inconveniences and restrictions seem truly nonsensical since airlines themselves have begun to install more electronic entertainment and Wi-Fi devices for passenger use. That’s why the recent recommendations from the Portable Electronics Devices Aviation Rulemaking Committee make sense. This committee, composed of various groups representing airlines, pilots, flight attendants and consumer electronic groups, recommended that the FAA relax some of those restrictions, many of which date back to the 1960s. The committee, known as PED ARC, didn’t make any recommendation on cell phone use since their usage is regulated by the FCC. Neither did the committee suggest relaxing the restriction on having to stow away laptops on takeoffs and landings.
While there have been reports of planes straying off course due to interference to their navigational systems from electronic devices, the committee found such incidents to be anectodal, and could find no proof that the cause was from PEDs.
The restrictions on electronic gadgets have been imposed for more than 45 years in fear that such devices would interfere with the radios and radar of the aircraft. But such worries are no longer valid, as airplanes have improved shielding of their electronic systems. In addition, the latest generation of devices uses such a limited frequency range and low emissions that it’s highly unlikely that they could possibly interfere with any of an airplane’s electronic systems. These advances in shielding consumer products and avionics have dovetailed to make the regulations governing the use of portable electronic devices mostly obsolete.
To prove the innocuousness of current electronic devices Amazon loaded a planeload of its Kindles onto a commercial jet in 2011 and there was no measurable impact of all those running devices on any of the plane’s electronic systems.
The recommendation makes all the more sense as it would free up flight attendants to focus on passenger and flight crew needs rather than enforcing a rule that contributes nothing to flight safety. Relaxing the rules would go a long way in reducing some of the confrontations between flight attendants and passengers over PED use during takeoffs and landings. Many passengers are not even sure how to put their device in airplane mode! A study by the Consumer Electronics Association and the Airline Passenger Experience Association found that as many as one third of passengers had their devices running after takeoff and during landing, which means that millions of airline miles have been flown with these devices on, without incident.
While we fully support bringing air travel more in line with the needs of the 21st-century traveler and the lifting of archaic restrictions, it’s important for the FAA to fully test new devices as they come to market to ensure that they don’t have any technologies that may pose a hazard to travelers. While e-readers loading a book only use a short burst of transmission to load a page, tablets that load multimedia data use much longer and more powerful transmissions. The plethora of technologies and manufacturers, some from third-world countries that don’t have the same meticulous oversight as our Consumer Safety Commission or the FCC, have to be tested to make sure that the emissions from Bluetooth or other technologies are properly shielded.
The same burden of testing should be placed on airline manufacturers who should develop quality assurance procedures for testing consumer electronic devices while being used on their aircraft. The latest technical problems with the Boeing Dreamliner’s batteries are more than enough of an illustration that even the most minor of electronic components have to undergo thorough testing in order to pass muster for passenger safety. The FAA should work hard to make the skies friendlier, but this should not come at the cost of compromising on passenger safety.