FAA Facing More Pressure To Change Its Rules On Electronic Device Usage

from the the-FAA-speaks-'government;'-it'll-understand-being-'legislated dept

Way back in March, the FAA stated that it was taking a “fresh look” at Kindles and tablet computers, possibly moving towards approving these devices for use during takeoff and landing. Nine months later, perhaps feeling the “fresh look” was now a bit past “stale,” FCC chief Julius Genachowski politely but pointedly asked the FAA to just get on with it already.

Now, the FAA has been threatened with being cut out of the device rules loop, thanks to Sen. Claire McCaskill, who has warned the FAA to act fast or face being legislated at.

It is my hope that the FAA will work, with the FCC and other federal agencies where appropriate, as expeditiously as possible to implement common sense changes to today's restrictive regulations on in-flight use of PEDs that better reflect new technologies and the changing role these devices play in Americans' daily lives. While the agency can and should use existing authorities to allow for the broader use of PEDs, I am prepared to pursue legislative solutions should progress be made too slowly.

In a blog post for the New York Times, Nick Bilton explores some of the FAA's stalling tactics and dubious claims behind its refusal to allow certain electronic devices to be used during takeoff and landing. Legislative pressure or no, it looks like the FAA isn't going to be moving any faster than is bureaucratically necessary.

In October, after months of pressure from the public and the news media, the F.A.A. finally said it would begin a review of its policies on electronic devices in all phases of flight, including takeoff and landing. But the agency does not have a set time frame for announcing its findings.

An F.A.A. spokeswoman told me last week that the agency was preparing to move to the next phase of its work in this area, and would appoint members to a rule-making committee that will begin meeting in January.

So, it's a start. Nearly a year past the day it promised to “rethink” the personal electronic device issue, the FAA's finally going to begin selecting candidates for its rule-making committee. Presumably, the committee will be finalized at some point within the next six months, at which point the rule-making can actually begin. Judging by the past year's “effort,” I would imagine we'll be writing 2014 on our checks before any proposed changes are given a timescale for potential rollout.

In the process of fending off a growing army of irritated fliers, FCC chairmen and legislators, the FAA has conjured up every bit of electro-hysteria in its arsenal to keep fliers sitting upright and at full attention any time the plane goes below the magical 10,000-ft. cutoff.

As Bilton states, arguing with the FAA is like arguing with a stubborn teenager. Despite its inability to provide any evidence to back up its stance on electronic devices, the FAA continues to stick to its increasingly dubious talking points.

A year ago, when I first asked Les Dorr, a spokesman for the F.A.A., why the rule existed, he said the agency was being cautious because there was no proof that device use was completely safe. He also said it was because passengers needed to pay attention during takeoff.

This last statement is odd. I understand that safety instructions are being handed out during the “takeoff experience,” but once that's over (or you've seen it more than a couple of times), it would seem passengers should be able to return to whatever they were doing before the hand signals began. Furthermore, no other form of mass transportation demands that its passengers “pay attention” during departure. And, as Bilton points out, people without electronic devices aren't being forced to “pay attention.”

When I asked why I can read a printed book but not a digital one, the agency changed its reasoning. I was told by another F.A.A. representative that it was because an iPad or Kindle could put out enough electromagnetic emissions to disrupt the flight.

Which is ridiculous, considering…

Yet a few weeks later, the F.A.A. proudly announced that pilots could now use iPads in the cockpit instead of paper flight manuals.

So, iPads in the cockpit: OK. iPads in the fuselage: Verboten. There's an excuse behind that “reasoning” as well.

The F.A.A. then told me that “two iPads are very different than 200.”

But they're not. EMT Lab's testing manager, Kevin Bothmann, whom Bilton had test a variety of ereaders and tablets for electromagnetic interference, points out that emitted energy doesn't stack.

“Electromagnetic energy doesn’t add up like that. Five Kindles will not put off five times the energy that one Kindle would,” explained Kevin Bothmann, EMT Labs testing manager. “If it added up like that, people wouldn’t be able to go into offices, where there are dozens of computers, without wearing protective gear.”

Bill Ruck, principal engineer at CSI Telecommunications, a firm that does radio communications engineering, added: “Saying that 100 devices is 100 times worse is factually incorrect. Noise from these devices increases less and less as you add more.”

EMT Labs found that a Kindle puts out less than 30 microvolts per meter in use (0.00003 volts), while any airliner that is approved for flight must be able to withstand up to 100 volts per meter. So, the FAA is concerned that a device that puts out emissions at a level that could be generously termed a rounding error will brick the plane during takeoffs and landing.

Then there's the ever-popular “iPad becomes deadly projectile” argument, which finds that airborne rounded corners are more dangerous than hardcover books moving at the same speed. This argument is so weak it's a wonder the sentence didn't collapse on itself the moment it was first uttered.

But the most interesting point of Bilton's piece is the fact that these rules, backed by little more than “because we said so” rationalization, generate the irrational fear that a single person's electronic device could bring the whole plane down. This often results in overreaction.

In September, a passenger was arrested in El Paso after refusing to turn off his cellphone as the plane was landing. In October, a man in Chicago was arrested because he used his iPad during takeoff. In November, half a dozen police cars raced across the tarmac at La Guardia Airport in New York, surrounding a plane as if there were a terrorist on board. They arrested a 30-year-old man who had also refused to turn off his phone while on the runway.

Basing a zero-tolerance policy on irrational fear leads to other problems as well, especially if those involved have “bought in” to the FAA party line.

In 2010, a 68-year-old man punched a teenager because he didn’t turn off his phone. Lt. Kent Lipple of the Boise Police Department in Idaho, who arrested the puncher, said the man “felt he was protecting the entire plane and its occupants.”

These sorts of incidents are bound to become more common the longer the FAA stalls on adjusting its personal electronic device rules. Device usage is growing, and evidence is mounting that the FAA's claims don't hold water. More and more passengers will test the limits of these rules because they find them ridiculous.

Underneath it all, it seems the only thing holding back the FAA's clearance of these devices is its own fear. Since it will never be 100% sure that these devices won't interfere with critical systems, it's going to continue to play it super-safe, since the last thing it wants on its hands is a plane crash occurring shortly after loosening these restrictions. It's the same fear that keeps the TSA from scaling back its efforts. If something bad happens, the rules shouldn't have been changed. If nothing bad happens, it's because the rules are in place. It's fear-based inertia and if any movement occurs, it's usually in the harsher, stricter direction. 

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Comments on “FAA Facing More Pressure To Change Its Rules On Electronic Device Usage”

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Ninja (profile) says:

FAA: What if a terrorist modifies a tablet into a small EMP bomb and activates it during landing/take off? Are you implying you support child molesting (!!) Mr Cushing?

Note: since it has become common to lump child porn and terrorism into virtually anything that doesn’t relate even remotely with them I decided it could sound more reasonable than any of the arguments the FAA uttered. Obviously my brain skipped an electric pulse when I wrote this but then again I’m not from the FAA. Or the US Govt.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You make a joke about this, but it’s good to remember that, since 9/11, there have been several attempts by terrorists to bring down airplanes in flight. Thankfully, they’ve all been unsuccessful so far, but people are still trying.

And that actually brings us to one of the strongest arguments in favor of doing away with the ban on electronics in flight: considering how easy it is to make a laptop or other device appear to be off when it’s actually on and running, if it was actually possible for such a device to bring down a plane in flight, someone would have done it by now! It’s orders of magnitude easier than, say, smuggling explosives on board, afterall…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You should probably read the whole thing before bending out of shape Ninja, the guy is agreeing with you. His point is if all it took was a overpowered ipad/laptop/cellphone to bring down a plane it would have been done by now.

It’s really not that hard to have an electronic device running while to the casual observer it appears to be off, or in the overhead compartment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I believe all attempts to bring down airplanes since 9/11 have been stopped and handled by passangers and not any officials working for any agency.

See, the problem for the terrorists is that now that people know that it is no longer a ‘just follow directions and you’ll be fine’ fairytale situation we see in movies, people know the goal is to kill them, and no longer co-operate with the terrorist. Who on the plane is going to NOT do something if a terrorist tries to take over the controls to crash it? If the terrorist is not going to take over the plane, why is he there? Why is he not the baggage handler loading up every plane he can with a device that goes boom based on an a cheap altimeter. Why is he not the repairman sabotaging flights so they look like an accident? Why is he not targeting the unprotected massive tightly packed crowd (more people than what’s on a single flight by the way) that the TSA developed, AKA the line before the security check.

The point is, if there were any people SERIOUSLY trying, then we would not have a happy story string of unsuccessfull attempts by a few brainwashed goons fumbling evil plots.

gorehound (profile) says:

Yes, the cracks in the foundation of our government is showing.At the rate it is failing will it finally just implode ?
I for one welcome their destruction.The Ultra-Rich and the Stooge Politicians do not read History Books.
These people keep on squeezing and squeezing until they day we have our own Bastille Day.
This News may not seem super bad but put this into context with all the other not so super bad News and it all adds up.
1+1 =2

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I for one welcome their destruction.

No you don’t. And if you do, you need to study some history. Maybe you welcome the idea of their destruction, but the actuality?

Have a look at what happens when governments fail. History’s pretty clear on this subject: there’s something that’s worse than living under tyranny–much worse–and that’s living under anarchy. Because even tyrants have to protect the people they’re oppressing, and see that their basic needs are met, or they’ll simply run out of people to oppress in short order. And then they’ll have no more power and status, because that power and status comes from being on top of the heap. No more heap, no more power.

If you really think that the government falling is a good idea, I’d suggest that you spend some time in Somalia. That ought to disabuse you of your romantic fantasies in short order…

Tim K (profile) says:

If having the device active was all it took to potentially take down a plane then their rules wouldn’t do jack shit to prevent that anyways. I’ve listened to my phone (in airplane mode) while taking off, all you have to do is have a hoodie on. They can’t stop that, so how would they stop someone trying to ‘take down the plane’ by having the device on, when they could just leave it in their pocket or face down, and they wouldn’t even know it’s on. And an electronic device doesn’t hurt more when it’s turned on, just an fyi to the FAA

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That. I have friends that work directly with planes or in flight companies and they are all adamant about this: electronics don’t do shit to the plane. And it’s actually better if people take off with their gadgets turned on because when you turn on there’s a surge on the emissions since all circuits are filled with power in the start up process. In any case it-does-not-matter. The plane is perfectly safe regardless of all 200 ipads turned on.

Phillip (profile) says:

Re: Re:

that doesn’t even get into the fact that many devices are actually left on unintentionally in bags or pockets.

Plus they make you “turn off” ereaders, but you just have to put cell phones and devices in flight mode. I’m pretty sure smartphones and most other devices put off way more EMI than an ereader which only really uses power to change pages.

DannyB (profile) says:

Testing the limits

> These sorts of incidents are bound to become more common the
> longer the FAA stalls on adjusting its personal electronic device
> rules. Device usage is growing, and evidence is mounting that
> the FAA’s claims don’t hold water. More and more passengers will
> test the limits of these rules because they find them ridiculous.

These Piracy incidents are bound to become more common the
longer the RIAA stalls on adjusting its business model to match
reality. Digital media use is growing, and evidence is mounting that
the RIAA’s piracy claims don’t hold water. More and more consumers will
test the limits of copyright because they find it ridiculous.

TheResidentSkeptic says:

Cockpit Electronics

I got my private pilot’s license way back in 1984.. since then, we’ve had available to us in the cockpit many of the EXACT SAME forbidden devices. From a Compaq iPaq with GPS that clipped onto the yoke (anywhere map, IIRC) to full iPAD “instrument flight systems”…

But hey, let’s not let reality or facts enter into the picture here.. so I remain skeptical that anything will come of this other than more FUD, and unfortunately, more regulations which will be in conflict with other mandatory regulations so that whatever we do is wrong.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: Cockpit Electronics

I got my private pilot’s license way back in 1984.. since then, we’ve had available to us in the cockpit many of the EXACT SAME forbidden devices.

Yeah…. but everyone knows that the manufacturers of private aircraft spend a fortune on EMP-shielding all thecontrols against electronic interference compared to a large airliner costing 10’s of millions….. right?

Patrick (profile) says:

The FAA is the US federal government at its absolute worst. Everything they do now is based on irrational and completely unfounded fears that have nothing to do with reality. I have personally been harassed twice by FAA safety officers for flying my 3 lb. video-piloted remote control plane and posting videos on YouTube. The first time was because someone filed a complaint against me in retaliation for an online petition I started asking the Academy of Model Aeronautics (a nationwide umbrella organization for RC flyers) to relax its rules for video-piloted RC flight, and they did not even have the right YouTube channel. The second call I got was about a video I posted flying my RC plane mostly at treetop level around my university campus. The FAA officer tried to convince me that my plane was an unauthorized unmanned aircraft system rather than a perfectly legal hobbyist RC aircraft, that I violated the law by flying it (in reality there are no laws in the US regulating RC aircraft, only voluntary guidelines), and that I posed a threat to manned aviation (despite flying low to the ground and taking precautions to avoid ever flying near manned aircraft). In the end he pretty much gave up since I knew more about the law than he did, and I haven’t heard from him since.

Actions like these though have the RC community terrified of the FAA and what regulations they may impose in the future. The probability of a collision between an RC plane and a manned aircraft is extremely low, and the damage it would cause would be no more than a single bird strike. Yet the FAA is paranoid about this and there is every indication that whenever they actually get around to passing regulations for unmanned aircraft, RC aircraft (particularly ones flown through live video links like mine) will be heavily regulated to the point of being useless. This despite a direct decree from Congress that the FAA is forbidden to regulate model aircraft, which the FAA has signaled it plans to ignore.

The FAA these days is simply out of control and has to be reigned in. What will they next decide is a threat? Children’s paper airplanes?

velox (profile) says:

Re: Re:

AC: Read the IEEE article again and apply a little critical thinking this time.

As the very first comment below your referenced article noted, the author of the article proved nothing except that
1) Cell phones have emissions that can be detected
2) People break the rules on every. single. flight.

The rest of the article consists of describing a collection of recorded opinions from air-crew members about events during the 1990’s where they believed there may have been some interference caused by personal electronic devices. Such collection of anecdote is useful only to stimulate scientific investigation, but it certainly isn’t controlled scientific inquiry which can lead to conclusive data.

Meanwhile… veritable years of nothing happening on millions of flights when these devices are on makes one highly prone to believe that this article is pure FUD. Note that the use of the word “millions” is not an exaggeration.

And no, I don’t care that the paper’s author was an ex-astronaut.

Anonymous Coward says:


If cell phones, tablets, etc. are so dangerous then why don’t they confiscate them at security or remove them from our luggage? No need for knives, guns, or bombs if all it takes is a phone call to crash the plane.

What’re they going to do mid-flight if I announce that I forgot to turn off my tablet which is currently in my checked luggage?

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