Editorial Devices on planes  either enforce the rules or change them

Though lacking the social import of gay marriage or marijuana legalization, the issue of mobile device use on airplanes is heating up again. Now government agencies appear to be bickering about it. The FCC sent the FAA a letter telling it to get off the lavatory and revise the rules. What most people don't realize is the FAA doesn't make the rules, and it was the FCC that banned cell phone use in particular.

In the meantime, both casual and frequent flyers are frothing over whether passengers should be permitted to use their devices during takeoff and landing. Arguments on both sides range from sensible to preposterous. The science is murky and the research takes too long. And while the FAA is profoundly irresolute about whether or not there is any real danger in using personal devices on a plane, the agency is probably not sufficiently motivated to create change.

If you haven't flown in a while, here are the basics. After everyone has boarded the plane, the flight attendants close the door. They immediately instruct passengers to turn off their portables -- "anything with an on/off switch" is the defining language. Airplane Mode isn't enough; computers and handhelds must be completely powered down. You can use them again when the plane reaches 10,000 feet, which takes just a few minutes from takeoff. Getting from the gate to the runway can take quite a bit longer. Then, same drill on the way down. No e-reading or tableture during the landing.

The purpose of all this is to avoid electronic interference of advanced airplane systems during the trickiest parts of the flight. There is little evidence of danger along those lines, and definitely no proof -- when the FCC last studied the issue, a spokesperson was astraddle: "There was no evidence saying these devices can't interfere with a plane, and there was no evidence saying that they can." There remains institutional caution around "spurious emissions" that come from devices that might seem benign, like Kindles. One FAA document notes that e-readers generate low-power emissions when a page is turned.

What is the role of the FAA in all this? The agency does not make the device rules, contrary to popular understanding. It conducts research and issues reports. The most recent such report was released in 2006, and states: "It should be noted that the responsibility for permitting passenger use of a particular PED (Personal Electronic Device) technology lies solely with the operator." Each airline makes its rules, guided by FAA research. Among US carriers, the rules are nearly identical.

Popular arguments in support of current rules hit these common points:

  • Grow up: Variations on, "If you can't live without Angry Birds for 10 minutes, you're sick."
  • You never know: Planes are complicated, emissions are mysterious and flying is scary. Don't take chances by messing with cautious rules.
  • It's about attention: It's not about electronic interference primarily; the airline really wants you to be alert and undistracted during takeoff and landing. This argument ignores that passengers in first class are served drinks from the moment they sit down and that there is no distraction difference between a Kindle and a book.
  • It's about stowing: If there's an emergency, the airline doesn't want the compounding fact of phones and tablets whipping through the air.

The nudging letter which was sent by an FCC commissioner to the FAA's acting administrator proposed a lofty justifidcation for relaxing the rules: "Mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives. They empower people to stay informed and connected with friends and family and they enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost US competitiveness." That is one extravagant rationale for allowing email use while rolling out to the runway.

Editorial Devices on planes  either enforce the rules or change them

More straightforward complaints are voiced whenever this issue is raised. For example, a year ago American Airlines began allowing its pilots to use iPads in the cockpit during flight, replacing the standard 35-pound kit of reference manuals. That policy baldly contradicted the electronic interference theory, except insofar as 500 passenger devices might have a cumulative effect.

The main call of bogus revolves around non-compliance among passengers and abject failure of enforcement in the plane. During 2011 and most of 2012 I flew at least twice a week, always with an interested eye to how passengers treated the shut-down directive. I saw a few examples of audacious screen sneakage. Most people push the rule to the edge, then stow their gear. But shutting down entirely? No. That is rare in my observation. Laptop lids are closed. Cases are shut around active e-readers and tablets.

Most passengers don't take the danger seriously, but I did witness one woman eyeing her neighbor across the aisle, who was finishing up her business after the door had closed. The woman was agitated as she watched and waited for the tapping and swiping to stop. Finally she growled loud enough for all to hear: "If she doesn't turn that thing off soon, I'm going to turn it off for her."

The point is this: The airlines don't seem to take the danger seriously either, infusing the whole business with an aura of rubbish. If personal electronics really are dangerous, they shouldn't be in the damn plane. Or, their inactive state should be verified, seat by seat. Neither is practical, obviously. On countless trips, I have inadvertently left my BlackBerry turned on, packed in the carry-on, above me in the storage bin.

Editorial Devices on planes  either enforce the rules or change them

The FAA decided this past summer to get started with another round of research testing, and the FCC's recent poke seems to be a way of saying, "Get on with it, and come to the right conclusion." There are two problems with any glib manifesto on this subject.

First, there actually is evidence of PED interference of aeronautics. This eye-opening report from Boeing scarily documents examples of laptops interrupting autopilot control, forcing aircraft to make turns and other portentous behavior. In one case the manipulative device was brought to the cockpit, where the pilots were able to reproduce its effect on navigation. (All of Boeing's examples occurred in the 1990s.)

Second, device-specific FAA testing procedures, while admirably thorough, cannot keep up with product development cycles in the consumer mobile space. The agency has recently completed its public comment period that precedes actual testing. In the one or two years it takes to complete a study of today's devices, there could be substantial turnover of those devices as travelers adopt new gadgets. The FAA is chasing a constantly receding finish line.

Inertia and trepidation could keep the status quo for years to come. Neither FAA officials, who merely provide guidance, nor the airlines, which make their own rules, are motivated to put themselves in the path of blame by allowing the barest possibility of avoidable catastrophe. This disincentive remains true even though airlines are not remotely solving for danger now with their ineffective cabin announcements -- it's more like muffling the problem than solving it.

Interestingly, the FAA's request for public comment included this topic: "Development of consumer electronics industry standards for aircraft-friendly PEDs, or aircraft-compatible modes of operation." Putting the burden of action on device manufacturers might cut through the stalemate. In the meantime, airline passengers must still practice their conversation (or napping) skills during takeoff and landing.


Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He is a frequent flyer who hates turning off devices.

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Editorial: Devices on planes -- either enforce the rules or change them