CES: Growing push to allow devices on planes

Entertainment content could get boost from loosened restrictions

For most mobile-equipped Americans, the idea of “out of the office” has become nearly meaningless — except for in the skies, where the use of portable electronic devices during takeoff and landing on commercial flights is banned and has provided digital warriors with a kind of Hobbesian respite from the connected world.

But pressure from businesses, pols and cranky consumers is forcing the Federal Aviation Administration to consider lifting the rules, which could give the entertainment community more of a reason to go mobile with its content.

The FAA, the Federal Communications Commission, mobile device makers and the airlines are working together to forge new rules. Last month FCC Julus Genachowski wrote to the FAA asking that rules for PEDs be relaxed.

Genachowski said PEDs help people stay connected to friends and family and “enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri wrote a follow-up letter to the FAA backing up Genachowski but taking a different approach: “The public is growing increasingly skeptical of prohibitions on the use of many electronic devices during the full duration of a flight,” she wrote, “while at the same time using such devices in increasing numbers.” McCaskill called the fear of PEDs “dated, at best” and the FAA’s rules “anachronistic.”

“The absurdity of the current situation,” wrote McCaskill, “was highlighted when the FAA acted earlier this year to allow tablet computers to replace paper flight manuals in the cockpit, further enhancing the public’s skepticism about the current regulations.”

Even before Genachowski and McCaskill wrote their letters the FAA had agreed to establish a working group to study PED rules. The body was charged with examining how airlines determine which devices can be used in-flight and when they can be used, and present recommendations to the FAA.

As 2013 began, the FAA said members were still being appointed to the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), which is scheduled to begin meeting this month. Its final roster will be posted on the FAA website. It’s scheduled to take six months to complete its task.

Note, though, that the ARC is to examine how the airlines, not the government, determine which devices can be used in-flight. The FAA puts the burden on airlines to test every PED on every kind of plane in their fleet.

Rules restricting the use of electronic devices in flight were founded out of a simple premise: Airlines must prevent the use of any device in flight (or at least during takeoff and landing) that they haven’t proven safe on the airplanes they operate. Airlines, whose staffs and margins are already thin, have instead chosen to simply insist that PEDs be off during takeoff and landing.

Reports of PEDs possibly interfering with planes are rare and proof that they’ve done so is all but non-existent.

A NASA report details 50 safety incident reports mentioning PEDs over roughly a decade. Compared to the vast number of commercial flights (around 28,000 per day in the U.S.) the number of PED incidents is small. Moreover, of those 50 incidents, just 14 involve possible interference with the plane’s electronics, 12 involve fire, smoke or fumes, and 12 involve passengers who either forgot to turn their cell phones off or became belligerent or uncooperative when asked to do so.

With those stats in mind, one vocal critic of the FAA, New York Times “Bits” blogger Nick Bilton, has identified a clear and present danger from the use of PEDs on airplanes.

“If progress (on PED rules) is slow,” Bilton wrote last month, “there will eventually be an episode on a plane in which someone is seriously harmed as a result of a device being on during takeoff. But it won’t be because the device is interfering with the plane’s systems. Instead, it will be because one passenger harms another, believing they are protecting the plane from a Kindle.”

Even if devices are approved for continuous use in flight, VOIP services like Skype are likely to remain banned. Safety isn’t really the concern there, since airlines are offering in-flight WiFi. Passengers, it seems, like not having to listen to other people’s phone calls.