This is the loudest part of the flight -- engines throttled up, flaps and gear hanging in the breeze and scared kids doing their best to drown all that out with screams and shouts. It's exactly when you most want to use your portable music player, and exactly when you aren't allowed. We've been told that this is for safety reasons, to prevent interference from the myriad devices carried by a cabin full of passengers, but that's never quite felt satisfactory to me. (Why is it okay to use those very same devices over 10,000 feet? Why can pilots use iPads but I can't?)
So many questions, but I'm not here to second-guess the people whose jobs it is to keep me safe as I schlep myself, my roller bag and my personal item across the country yet again. I'm here to propose a very simple solution: a certification program in which manufacturers submit devices for testing and the FAA charges a (possibly hefty) fee for their approval. It could not only improve the lives of frequent travellers like myself, but could also stand to provide millions in funding to the FAA, funds that could be put toward its unfortunately named NextGen air traffic control system. Win win? Read on and decide for yourself.
Let's start by taking a step back. There was a time, not all that long ago, when laptops stayed snug in their bags. Those were halcyon days of fast-moving security lines staffed by friendly attendants who smelled of lilac and cinnamon. Or, at least, that's how I remember them. In 2007, TSA restrictions tightened and it was decided your luggables needed to be scanned a little more closely; an unobstructed view required. So, all laptops had to come out, and those lines dragged to a crawl.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when laptops didn't need to be removed from bags. Those were halcyon days of fast-moving security lines staffed by friendly attendants who smelled of lilac and cinnamon.
Frequent fliers yelled and, after enough complaints, "checkpoint-friendly" bags arrived. These TSA-approved cases could flip open, leaving your laptop perfectly exposed to the prying rays of a security scanner. Problem solved? Not exactly -- the authorized bags tend to have compromised designs or crazy prices. Few have bothered to buy them and so they've hardly greased the wheels at JFK's many and messy bottlenecks.
Hardly a success, then, but it is a case of a safety-minded government agency making a concession for your convenience. FAA-approved devices could be seen as a similar concession, but a far more successful one if done right. Let's start by looking at the problem most cited when explaining why a given device can't be used: interference. It's debatable whether modern devices are actually liable to interfere with an aircraft's communication, navigation or control systems, but there's no doubt that there are some devices out there that could interfere with some aircraft.
Indeed, a 2006 Mythbusters episode found that unshielded cockpit instrumentation used in older aircraft could be affected by GSM cellphones. A Boeing report cites multiple cases of odd in-flight behavior caused by interference and, recently, Honeywell cockpit displays started blanking out when subjected to WiFi interference -- something increasingly common as services like Gogo continue their lethargic rollouts.
Scary stuff, but all very isolated. The question is which devices effect which systems, a task that seems impossibly huge. But, look at it from another perspective and things get a little easier: you don't need to test every gadget anyone could bring on a plane, just find out which avionics components are vulnerable to what sorts of interference. These are tests already performed in many cases, but what's missing is a central repository to track which frequencies and emissions levels are problematic for which systems.
Just like the TSA has approved certain bags for use in security checkpoints, so too could the FAA approve certain devices.
The population of such a database, perhaps done with help from the FCC, would be slow and expensive, but it would be the key to the creation of a certification program that would allow us to keep on gadgeting at any altitude. Just like the TSA has approved certain bags for use in security checkpoints so too could the FAA approve certain devices.
The first and biggest component of the certification would be looking to see whether the device in question emits troubling interference within the already identified ranges, a process that could piggyback on the FCC's current testing. For an additional fee, our favorite communications commission could specifically target those known electromagnetic trouble spots and certify that a given device plays nice with all the pilot's many toys up in the cabin.
But that wouldn't be all. Additional testing would be needed to ensure the device has an easily accessible airplane mode, silencing any radios not allowed for use in-flight. Finally, it would ensure that the size and composition of any lithium or lithium-ion batteries fall within the FAA's regulations.
Since this would be a separate, optional certification, manufacturers could choose whether or not to apply. It would also mean the FAA could charge for the service, and ask a pretty penny if it liked. Hiring a testing facility and consultants for FCC certification usually costs between $5,000 and $20,000, depending on the nature of the thing. It's reasonable to assume that the optional FAA interference testing would at least double this. There would also be additional costs for FAA personnel to verify those other metrics, like battery size and composition.
The FAA could charge for the service, and ask a pretty penny if it liked.
Overall cost to the device producer? Why not a flat $50,000 fee to the FAA -- rather expensive for upstart rapid fabricators but, for your Amazons and your Apples of the world, a drop in the bucket. Top-shelf devices would be the first approved and that "FAA Flight Certified" stamp on the box would be a strong selling point, encouraging other manufacturers to get their latest and greatest devices certified -- also encouraging consumers to upgrade their aging tech to something new and approved. Approved devices could be used at any time during the flight, while anyone owning anything else would have to sit patiently through the Terrible 10,000 -- though it might make sense to suspend their use during the security briefing.
But what, then, is to stop someone from using a non-approved device during takeoff and landing? Absolutely nothing -- just like today. I don't know how many times I've reached into my pocket at 10,000 feet to pull out my phone, only to realize I never turned it off in the first place. More often than not I'll accidentally leave a tablet turned on in my bag and, frankly, once the flight attendants take their seats for takeoff there's nothing stopping me from pulling out my laptop and getting to work if I really wanted to. Enforcement of the current rules lies mostly with you and me.
So today's system is largely based on passengers playing by the rules, and this certification program would still heavily rely upon that. Fliers would have to voluntarily put aside their uncertified devices because there's no way flight attendants could spot the difference between an unapproved Galaxy S II and a properly tested Galaxy S III. Would passengers play along? In my experience most seem to willingly follow today's rules, but it isn't that hard to envision taking this a step further down the road, requiring that any certified device sport a purple LED that blinks into life when airplane mode is enabled. Those harried attendants could then spot with a glance who's playing by the rules.
Whether entirely trust-based or aided by a blinkenlight, this sort of certification would help raise awareness and provide insight into the true risks of in-flight EM interference, make the FAA some much-needed money and, most importantly, let me keep my Spotify playlist going throughout the entire duration of the flight. And, if we can find a way to get Gogo enabled at takeoff, I'll be all the happier.