Wider Use of Electronics (Maybe) Coming Soon to a Plane Near You


Portable electronic devices are an integral part of life for the millions of people flying on a daily basis, a part of their life which they probably aren’t going to give up just because a flight attendant makes an announcement to turn them off. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has finally caught up with this fact, announcing the formation of a workgroup to study the current policies and make recommendations on what changes, if any, can be made to those policies to better accommodate passengers and carriers. The workgroup will include government and industry representatives, and will convene this fall. It will meet for a six month period after which recommendations will be made.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood commented on the new committee, emphasizing the focus on safety first while also making it clear that there are other factors to be considered: "With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest. Safety is our highest priority, and we must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight." The government will also open up the discussion to public comment, seeking input on the same topics which the committee will be debating.

A number of airlines are deploying or testing iPad-based systems to replace pilot flight bags (meaning the devices are intended to be used throughout the flight). This naturally leads to the belief amongst many passengers that there’s no justification for requiring them to be turned off in the cabin. But don’t expect to be playing Words with Friends during the safety briefing as a foregone conclusion of the group.

The FAA acknowledges that electronic devices and aircraft avionics have changed significantly since the original rules were drafted in the 1960s and even since the most recent revision in 2008 but they are also not entirely sold on the idea of allowing devices to be used in the cabin throughout the flight. That is one of the specific areas the FAA is asking for comment on as part of this process; the agency is "requesting comments regarding the FAA’s policies, guidance, and procedures that aircraft operators use to determine whether to allow a particular PED for usage during flight."

With the timeline set by the FAA, it will likely be mid-2013 at the very earliest before even recommendations are made which might result in policies changing. Still, any sign of progress on this front is good news for passengers. And the fact that this is a rather major undertaking from the FAA suggests that they really are willing to consider significant changes to the rules, assuming the committee can come to some agreement.

Photo credit: Airplane interior via Shutterstock