FAA Might Allow for Some Gadget Use Before and During Takeoff

The FAA may relax restrictions on some gadget use during takeoff and landing.

ByJoanna Stern
June 21, 2013, 3:42 PM

June 21, 2013 — -- Alec Baldwin and all the others who get ticked off by the "please power down all your electronics" announcement before takeoff might soon not be listening to that announcement at all.

The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to relax the rules for in-flight electronics usage, say reports from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. According to the publications' sources, the FAA is expected to ease the ban on some gadgets during taxiing and at low altitudes. Currently, use of electronic devices is prohibited until a plane has reached 10,000 feet.

Awaiting a RecommendationFor the past year or so, the FAA has been taking a "fresh look" at the policies with the Aviation Rulemaking Committee, a group that includes representatives from the FCC, pilot and flight attendant groups, airlines and passenger associations. The group will make a formal recommendation by September. However, a first draft of the report, according to the Times and the Wall Street Journal, recommends allowing a wider set of devices during takeoff and landing.

The FAA wouldn't address the speculation when reached by ABC News but did say that it continues to examine this issue very carefully.

"The FAA recognizes consumers are intensely interested in the use of personal electronics aboard aircraft. That is why we tasked a government-industry group to examine the safety issues and the feasibility of changing the current restrictions," an FAA spokesperson told ABC News. "At the group's request, the FAA has granted a two-month extension to complete the additional work necessary for the safety assessment. We will wait for the group to finish its work before we determine the next steps."

The Flight Attendant Union, which is a part of the Aviation Rulemaking Committee, however, said that any reports based on the draft report are "premature."

"The committee's work is not yet completed and AFA will continue to review and comment on the draft document, which is expected to change significantly before final publication," the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in a statement sent to ABC News.

Arguments on Both Sides of the AisleThe issue of the impact of electronic frequencies on flight safety has long been a hot-button issue. Many, such as aviation analyst and former commercial pilot John Nance, argue that there is no evidence that tablets, e-readers, music players and handheld gaming devices have any impact on the aircraft hardware.

"There are 32,000 flights a day, and at least each one has a cellphone on. Many don't put them in the proper mode," Nance said. "You have a tremendous network of RF energy coming out of the cabin of every flight. Take that and multiply that for 20 years where we haven't had one single verifiable incident where there was any proof where radio emissions had an impact on a flight performance."

But that's not how Kenny Kirchoff, a cabin systems research and development engineer at Boeing, feels about it.

"We're learning that, as we thought, these devices have the potential to interfere with airplane systems and airplane radios on and during flight," Kirchoff told ABC News. "Sometimes they leave devices on inadvertently, sometimes they leave them on just because they leave them on. And we want to be able to make our products safer. We as an industry have to come up with a way to certify our airplanes and test our airplanes to make sure they won't be interfered with by these devices."

Kirchoff clarified that while Boeing has not been able to verify or confirm if a device would bring down an airplane, it could contribute to unsafe conditions that might lead to an accident.

The Aviation Rulemaking Committee is not considering cellphones in its study, but only the airplane mode of cellular devices and other electronic devices, such as e-readers and iPods. According to the Journal, the FAA is considering allowing only some gadgets to be used during all parts of the flight, including e-readers. However, in 2011, the FAA approved the use of iPads in the cockpit.

Kircoff says that the difference there is that the iPads those pilots are using have been tested and certified. Passengers' iPads or devices, however, have not each been examined for specific amounts of frequencies, and other sources of potential interference. Still, he maintains this is a period of transition and uncertainty about what the FAA will approve and change.

"I think we are in a transition period. We see a lot of effort right now with the FAA and with even some members of Congress who want to see some of the rules changed," he said. "And, of course, we want to do it in a safe manner."

ABC News' Matt Hosford and David Kerley contributed to this report.

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