Why the FAA Slow Walks Electronics in Planes

on June 26, 2013

Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Aviation Administration was moving to relax rules banning passengers from using phones, tablets, and other electronics at the beginning and end of flights. But by Monday, the Journal was warning us, not so fast. It will be many months before the rules change and even then not all devices may be allowed on all planes.

Behold the thalidomide effect. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration denied approval to thalidomide, a drug designed to treat morning sickness in pregnant women, thus sparing the U.S. from the severe drug-induced birth defects that plagued Europe. The non-approval won heaps of praise for the agency and for Dr. Frances Kelsey, the examiner whose suspicions kept thalidomide off the U.S. market.  And it greatly strengthened the already strong belief of regulatory agencies that inaction is the safest course for bureaucrats who live in constant fear of political fallout if a decision goes bad.

That bias toward inaction and extreme caution is why the FAA will not spend the next year or so testing every conceivable device in every known type of commercial aircraft before inevitably concluding that the use of electronics is safe in all phases of flight. They will continue to ban the use of cell-type radios during takeoff and landing–you don’t want to take any chances during these critical phases of flight and these signals are orders of magnitude stronger than incidental emissions or even Wi-Fi transmissions.

We know the use of these devices is safe because it is going on all the time.  I don’t think my use of devices is atypical. I dutifully stow stow my phone and tablet for takeoff and landings, but they are in airplane mode,  not shut down. I leave them in airplane mode during the flight because there’s generally no reception above 10,000 feet anyway and leaving the radio on just drains the battery as the device searches for a network. So from beginning to end of any flight, there are undoubtedly dozens of devices powered up at all times. [pullquote]The flight crew’s tablets are used in the cockpit, right on top of the instruments whose putative sensitivity to interference was the original reason for the ban.[/pullquote]

The strongest case for allowing device use comes from the airlines themselves. All of the paper documentation traditionally stowed in the cockpit and carried in the pilots’ flight bags takes space, adds weight, and is an enormous pain for both the airline and the crew to keep up to date. All of this can be eliminated by using tablets, mostly iPads in practice, as electronic flight bags, which airlines are doing as fast as they can. American Airlines just became the first U.S. carrier to complete the transition, including its fleet of ancient MD-80s. And these tablets will be used in the cockpit, right on top of the instruments whose putative sensitivity to interference was the original reason for the ban.

Unlike the Transportation Safety Administration’s ill-fated attempt to allow small pocket knives and other objects back on planes, the new rules on electronics will eventually go into effect. There doesn’t appear to be any organized pushback to the idea. Cabin crews, whose opposition was instrumental to killing the TSA change, will doubtless be glad to stop enforcing rules they, along with everyone else, regard as pointless.

But all the incentives at regulatory agencies are to move slowly and cautiously. So even though the FAA is a sprinter compared to the glacial Federal Communications Commission, it will take many months before any change happens. In the meantime, you’ll just have to make do with the airline magazine, or Skymall, or, as I do, something on paper that you have brought along to amuse yourself for the first and last few minutes of a flight. It really won’t hurt you to do without your electronics for a few minutes.