Happy Halloween! FAA to Allow Portable Electronic Devices During All Flight Phases

A month ago, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) recommended that the agency drop its ban on portable electronic device (PED) use during takeoffs and landings. Today, the FAA announced it was largely adopting the ARC’s proposals, which will soon permit passengers of commercial airlines to use non-transmitting PEDs (although WiFi on WiFi-enabled airliners and short-range Bluetooth devices will be allowed) gate to gate.

This move was supported by both the airlines and the unions representing flight attendants. After years of evidence supporting such a policy — electromagnetic interference with instruments from PEDs was never adequately demonstrated in the first place — the ritual of powering down cell phones (in airplane mode) and other devices twice during flights will soon be a thing of the past.

Note that the prohibitions will remain in place until operations procedures are implemented and individual airlines receive FAA approval for the PED policy change, so those traveling today and in the very near future will still need to switch off their phones and tablets. Pilots landing in low-viability conditions may still ask that passengers power down their PEDs, although this largely unenforceable and unnecessary provision was most likely included as a liability shield.

The FAA has released a short FAQ for passengers on what the new PED rules do and do not permit.

Some have asked why voice communications — use of cellular phones — are still prohibited. Despite supposed safety justifications, the reason for the ban has little to do with airliner instrument interference and largely to do with how cellular networks are designed and managed. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), not FAA, has jurisdiction over in-flight cellular device use, and its 1991 ban is supported by the wireless industry. As Mike Elgan succinctly explained several years ago:

Cell phone and tower designs are based on the assumption that at any given time, only a few cell towers will be close to any specific phone. So any given tower will use different channels than those used by other towers closest to it, but will use the same channels as towers farther away. However, when a phone is used in an airplane, it might have roughly equal access to two or more towers that use the same channels, which confuses the carriers’ computer systems. This situation might result in interrupted calls, reduced system capacity and other problems.

Of course, this could be fixed in any number of ways, including an overhaul of the software used to manage calls between towers, but the fix would cost money. The ban is cheaper.

Of course, many passengers do not enjoy listening to their neighbors’ conversations, so even if the FCC were to rescind the ban, some airlines are likely to continue prohibiting cell phone use during flights.