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.