US aviation advisers propose broader in-flight use of electronic devices

Advisers to US aviation authorities suggest ways to make using tablets, mobiles and laptops in flight safer; phone calls off agenda

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 September, 2013, 3:50am

Aircraft passengers in the US would be allowed broader use of mobile devices, laptops and tablets during flights under a proposal air safety regulators are due to begin considering next week.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will receive advice in the next few days about allowing greater use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) on aircraft from an advisory committee drawn from government and the aviation and consumer electronics industries, according to industry sources.

The new rules are likely to increase use of in-flight internet services and may affect standards for electronic device manufacturers.

The rules also could make it easier for airlines to allow passengers to plug their own electronics into in-flight entertainment systems, saving the weight of providing screens for everyone.

FAA rules demand devices be switched off below 3,000 metres and ban mobile-phone calls at any altitude because of the risk they could interfere with aircraft radios and other systems. Passengers often are allowed to make calls after a plane has landed, even while it is on an active taxi-way.

Recognising that many travellers want to use smartphones, tablets, laptops and e-readers during take-off and landing, the FAA last year set up the advisory group and took public comments on what could be done without compromising safety.

Many passengers have expressed strong opinions that the rules were either a nuisance or that they were necessary to avert crashes, leading to confusion and stress. Many passengers ignore the rules.

The 28-member committee approved the report on Wednesday and was due to submit it to the FAA by Monday, sources said. The committee did not consider allowing greater use of mobile phones.

Instead, the report suggested specific ways that other electronics could be made safer in other phases of flight, by plane makers, airlines and others involved in flight safety.

"There's no way they can police the individual devices. The solution is to make sure the aircraft can handle whatever is thrown at it," a source said. Mobile phone use has become one of the most divisive issues, but that issue is left out of the FAA's consideration since it is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Delta Air Lines said in a letter to the FAA last year that it found that virtually all of the violations with PEDs on flights occurred while planes were taxiing and most involved mobile phones. But the airline said it had seen no corresponding increase in safety problems.

"The benefits of expanded in-flight PED usage outweigh the extreme low risk of an actual interference event occurring, based on the data Delta has assembled," Kirk Thornburg, Delta's managing director of aviation flight safety, said.

Thornburg, chairman of the advisory committee, said Delta recommended allowing passengers to make mobile calls while a plane was on the ground, and allowing them to use approved "non-voice, non-sound" functions throughout a flight.

Airlines would still be the ones to decide which devices were approved.

But approval could be complicated, especially with the proliferation of devices and uncertainty about whether they were functioning properly.

"Since you can't test all the PEDs out there, and passengers are ignoring the rules, the report details various recommendations, methods and techniques that operators can follow to assure themselves and the FAA that PEDs can be safely used by passengers and flight crew throughout all phases of flight," another source said. Pilots would retain authority to order passengers to shut off devices.

The FAA has long wrestled with the issue of electronics on flights, publishing its first rule in 1966, after studies showed FM radios could interfere with navigation systems.

Some airlines hope to offer entertainment that will stream movies and music to passengers' devices.

Industry experts say the airlines expect they could reduce the weight of the plane by relying on passenger devices.

Doug Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, said interference from electronics was real, so the focus was on how to protect against it.

Pilots have told him they heard mobile-phone noise in their headsets while flying. Even though people were not talking, the phones were still trying to connect to towers.