Bloomberg News

Inflight Electronics Ban Under U.S. Review to Assess Risks

March 19, 2012

U.S. aviation regulators said they are exploring ways to speed reconsideration of bans on airline passengers using electronic devices during landing and takeoff.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement today it won’t change rules prohibiting use of laptops, tablet computers and smartphones at altitudes below 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) until they are shown to not affect aircraft controls.

“We recognize that this is an area of consumer interest and our goal is to bring together these key stakeholders to help facilitate a discussion,” the agency said. It added that no changes will be made until the FAA is certain they won’t affect safety.

Airlines can, under FAA regulations, allow use of electronics at all times when they test and determine devices won’t interfere with aircraft navigation systems. Testing rules haven’t resulted in wider permission to use electronic devices.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, whose agency shares responsibility for regulating cell phones on aircraft, said today he supports changing the rules. Genachowski, testifying at a U.S. House hearing on his agency’s budget, said he’d “encourage the FAA to look at that and to ensure it’s doing as little as necessary to protect public safety.”

The FAA hasn’t specified the effects of holding talks with airlines, electronics makers, passenger groups and other parties on evaluating devices such as tablets, and didn’t say how or when discussions will take place. The New York Times first reported the agency’s interest in reconsidering the rules.

Transistor Radios

Tests by the RTCA, a non-profit firm in Washington that performs research on radio and navigation for the FAA, have shown it’s theoretically possible for electronic devices to emit signals that may interfere with airliner equipment.

RTCA tests conducted from 2003 to 2006 failed to find evidence that FAA rules should be relaxed, according to an agency fact sheet. Those tests were conducted before the introduction of Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad or Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN)’s Kindle devices.

The FAA has wrestled with the safety of electronic devices since discovering in the 1960s that transistor radios could interfere with aircraft navigation equipment, according to Jay Ely, a NASA Langley Research Center engineer.

Spurious Emissions

Interference from personal devices is unlikely, Ely said in a telephone interview. Regulators are concerned that almost every device can emit radio waves on unintended frequencies, particularly when damaged or not made properly.

“From a safety point of view, you want those aircraft systems to work all the time in all conditions -- and you can’t guarantee that when there’s an unknown emission on board,” he said.

Rigorous testing is the only way to ensure no interference because so many variables exist in how electronic devices and aircraft function, he said.

The FAA has given permission to pilots at airlines such as Alaska Air Group Inc. (ALK)’s Alaska Airlines and United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL)’s United Airlines to use iPads in the cockpit in place of paper charts and manuals.

Those airlines had to demonstrate that the tablet computers didn’t emit radio waves that caused interference with aircraft electronics. The airlines are only required to test the specific models their pilots use, not those that passengers may bring aboard, according to FAA regulations.

Airlines will “work cooperatively” with FAA on any efforts to evaluate electronic devices, according to an e-mailed statement from Airlines For America, the Washington-based trade group for the largest U.S. carriers.

Safety Foremost

The FAA must maintain a high standard in any changes, John Cox, a former airline pilot who is now a consultant with Safety Operating Systems, a company in Washington.

“What we cannot do is lower the standards for electronic interference to the point where we create a safety hazard,” Cox said in a phone interview.

Cox said he has seen how electronic devices can cause unintended consequences on aircraft; a mechanic’s walkie-talkie once opened the lock on his cockpit door.

Passengers are allowed to use most electronic devices, except cell phones, once a flight has reached an altitude of 10,000 feet. “At a lower altitude, any potential interference could be more of a safety hazard as the cockpit crew focuses on critical arrival and departure duties,” the FAA said.

Cell phones are governed by FCC, which prohibit their use on flights because of “potential interference with ground networks,” according to the FAA.

The FCC in 2004 considered changing its rules to allow personal phone use on aircraft. The agency later withdrew the proposal after public comments objected to the change.

Phones that can be switched into “airplane mode,” disabling their radio transmissions, may be permitted at altitudes above 10,000 feet, according to the agency.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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