Nov 18 2013

Business Travelers, Rejoice: FAA Clears In-Flight Use of Mobile Devices

The agency in charge of airline safety allows passengers to use e-books, smartphones and tablets during takeoff and landing, but with some caveats.

After years of being forced to stow their electronic devices during takeoff and landing, business travelers are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta held a press conference on Oct. 31 at Washington, D.C.’s Ronald Reagan National Airport to announce new guidelines that would give passengers free use of their mobile devices during flights.

Listen closely, and you can almost hear the whoops and hollers of business fliers rising up in unison across the country.

In a statement issued on behalf of business travelers who’ve long grumbled about the frustrating policy, Global Business Travel Association Executive Director Michael McCormick wrote: "Business travelers applaud the recommendations of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Committee to allow greater use of personal electronic devices during flights. These busy road warriors will take every opportunity to stay connected with their customers and partners — the key to success.”

At Huerta’s request, the FAA created a special personal electronic device (PED) committee to tackle the question of in-flight electronics use in January 2013. Their work resulted in the agency’s decision to relax regulations on the use of mobile devices during flights.

“I commend the dedication and excellent work of all the experts who spent the past year working together to give us a solid report so we can now move forward with a safety-based decision on when passengers can use PEDs on airplanes,” Huerta said.

Is It a Device Free-for-All?

Although the FAA in-flight rules changes are no Halloween trick, it could be a little while before the treat of being able to use your e-book, tablet or smartphone gate to gate actually becomes a reality. That’s because implementation of the new rules will vary among carriers due to different degrees of readiness of their aircraft to support them. Those airlines with Wi-Fi–enabled aircraft in their fleet likely have already performed the proper interference testing on many of their planes.

As eWeek’s Wayne Rash notes, it is up to each airline to certify that it is safe to use mobile devices through all phases of flight. Even after that’s done, passengers will be able to use mobile devices only in airplane mode during takeoff and landing. All cellular communications remain off-limits — no calls, texting or data communication unless done over a Wi-Fi connection.

Even then, Wi-Fi use remains limited to altitudes of 10,000 feet or higher and can be disallowed at the discretion of the pilot. And while a tablet or smartphone can now remain in hand during takeoff and landing, notebooks still must be stowed away.

For years, we’ve all been told that interference from mobile devices during takeoff and landing was dangerous. But pilots have been using iPads in the cockpit for years. However, as Rash points out, there is a difference between a few devices in the hands of the people flying the plane and a whole plane full of tablet users.

Pilots can shut their tablets down quickly at the first sign of interference, for example; not so easy for a planeload of passengers. So it behooved the FAA to study the matter closely before changing the rules governing in-flight PED use.

“We believe today’s decision honors both our commitment to safety and consumers’ increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of their flights,” says Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “These guidelines reflect input from passengers, pilots, manufacturers and flight attendants, and I look forward to seeing airlines implement these much-anticipated guidelines in the near future.”

The FAA didn’t consider altering regulations regarding the use of cellphones for voice communications during flight because that issue falls under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission.