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Electronic Device Use May Expand on U.S. Airline Flights

By Alan Levin and Angela Greiling Keane
September 27, 2013 6:13 PM EDT 7 Comments
IPads to Kindles Cleared for U.S. Takeoffs, Landings After Tests
IPads to Kindles Cleared for U.S. Takeoffs, Landings After Tests

(Corrects nature of approval in ninth paragraph of story that moved Sept. 23.)

Airline passengers in the U.S. may soon be able to text, e-mail and use iPods, Kindles and other electronic devices during takeoff and landing.

A Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel this month will recommend to the agency how it could expand the use of personal electronic devices during flights, said Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers and a member of the panel.

The panel will recommend that the FAA tell airlines how to permit the use of e-mail, text and Web surfing as well as allowing e-readers and MP3 players during takeoff and landing, a person familiar with the report said. The person asked not to be named because the report isn’t complete.

Recommendations won’t include allowing in-flight mobile-phone calls, which the panel isn’t considering. The FAA bans phone use because signals can interfere with ground towers in cellular networks.

The FAA now prohibits use of electronic devices while a plane is below 10,000 feet, with the exception of portable recorders, hearing aids, heart pacemakers and electric shavers.

Once a flight ascends above that altitude, devices can be used in “airplane mode,” which blocks the broadcast of radio signals, according to the FAA. There’s an exception for equipment that aircraft manufacturers or an airline demonstrates are safe, such as laptops that connect to approved Wi-Fi networks.

The advisory panel in January began studying how to update the rules while the FAA has sought public comments. Lawmakers, including Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, have complained that the FAA was moving too slowly to expand usage.

Apple, Gogo

Broader use of on-board electronics would help manufacturers of devices, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc. Providers of approved aircraft Wi-Fi services would also gain by letting passengers use them longer.

Gogo Inc., based in Itasca, Illinois, says it has the most planes equipped with its technology in North America, and Qualcomm Inc. on May 9 won preliminary regulatory clearance of an air-to-ground broadband service.

“The FAA recognizes consumers are intensely interested in the use of personal electronics aboard aircraft. That is why we tasked a government-industry group to examine the safety issues and the feasibility of changing the current restrictions,” the FAA said in a statement. “We will wait for the group to finish its work before we determine next steps.”

The possible recommendations were first reported by the New York Times today.

Rules Broken

Four out of 10 airline passengers surveyed by the Consumer Electronics Association, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group, said they wanted to use electronic devices during landings and takeoffs. Almost a third of people in the poll reported they had inadvertently left a device turned on when use was prohibited.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington trade group representing mobile companies, and Amazon, the Seattle-based online retailer that sells the Kindle e-reader, last year urged the FAA to relax the rules. Personal electronics don’t cause interference, CTIA said in a blog post last year.

Passengers are violating current rules on every flight, 74 percent of flight attendants said in a survey. The Association of Flight Attendants, the largest U.S. flight-attendant union, polled 118 of its members last year, it said in a filing to FAA.

The flight-attendant union said in its comments it opposed allowing passengers to use devices during landing and takeoff. Even if they don’t cause interference with flight controls, they may become dangerous flying objects in a crash, the group said, and should be stowed like other personal items such as purses and handbags.

Interference Found

The airline industry has been divided. Delta, in comments last year to the FAA, endorsed wider use of electronics because passengers supported it. United Continental Holdings Inc. said it preferred no changes because they’d be difficult to enforce.

Scientific studies and pilot reports have shown evidence since the 1990s that devices emitting radio waves can interfere with aircraft equipment, such as instrument landing systems, radios and global-positioning satellite sensors.

Devices broadcast radio signals on multiple frequencies, such as Wi-Fi and mobile-phone wavelengths, and have been shown to interfere with aircraft electronics in lab tests conducted by NASA, U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority and Boeing Co., the world’s biggest plane maker.

Scientists are learning how such interference occurs and how to shield aircraft systems. Tests to prove that devices won’t cause interference have also improved, David Carson, an associate technical fellow at Boeing who has participated in industry evaluations of electronics, said in an interview.

Delta Air Lines Inc. and Alaska Air Group Inc. have used such tests, outlined in existing FAA guidelines, to allow their pilots to carry Apple iPads that replace paper charts and manuals.

To contact the reporters on this story: Angela Greiling Keane in Washington at agreilingkea@bloomberg.net; Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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