FCC Urges FAA to Allow Gadgets During Airline Takeoff and Landing

The FCC is urging the FAA to "enable greater use" of electronics on planes.

December 7, 2012, 5:24 PM

Dec. 7, 2012 — -- You and Alec Baldwin aren't the only ones who get annoyed on a plane when you have to turn off your phone, or tablet, or laptop during takeoff or landing. Turns out the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) would like flight attendants to stop saying "please turn off your electronics" before takeoff as well.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration's Michael Huerta, urging the agency to adjust its rules and allow for electronics usage during all phases of airline flight.

In the letter, a copy of which was sent to ABC News, Genachowski writes, "I write to urge the FAA to enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable electronics devices during flight, consistent with public safety."

FAA Review

In August, the FAA announced that it would be reviewing or taking a "fresh look" at the policy. It came after reports that electronics didn't cause interference with a plane's electronics.

Genachoswki writes that he supports the review. "The review comes at a time of tremendous innovation as mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives. They empower people to say informed and connected with friends and family, and they enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness."

When reached by ABC News, the FAA would not comment specifically on the FCC letter. It did point out its announcement of plans to conduct a six-month review with an Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which includes the FCC and other representatives, including pilot and flight attendant groups, airlines, and passenger associations.

"We're looking for information to help air carriers and operators decide if they can allow more widespread use of electronic devices in today's aircraft," Huerta said in a statement in August. "We also want solid safety data to make sure tomorrow's aircraft designs are protected from interference."

Airplane Mode, Cellphone Use

Ironically, it is the FCC that bans the use of the cellular signals on planes. According to the FCC's website, "Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules prohibit the use of cellular phones using the 800 MHz frequency and other wireless devices on airborne aircraft. This ban was put in place because of potential interference to wireless networks on the ground." The FCC considered lifting the ban in 2007, but it ultimately didn't. The FCC and FAA allow the use of phones in "airplane mode" on flights, which turns off the cellular radio, but not during the takeoff, taxiing, and landing periods of the flight.

While in-fight Wi-Fi services have been in use on planes over the last several years, making calls using those services are also restricted by the airlines. The reason is not technical; airlines say they don't want callers bothering other passengers.

Virgin Atlantic began to allow very limited cellphone use on select airplanes in May. Other international airlines have experimented with picocell units, which bring cellular connectivity to the skies.

In June, the FAA did a study on the use of cellphones on planes by interviewing non-U.S. aviation authorities that had experience with cellphone usage on planes.

"No non-US civil aviation authority reported any cases of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cellphones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations," the report says.

"The non-US civil aviation authorities who have approved the installation of onboard cellular telephone base stations on aircraft reported that the aircraft with these installations undergo extensive analysis, functional tests, ground tests, and flight tests to demonstrate that the cellphones and base stations do not interfere with aircraft systems," it adds. The report was not done as part of the current FAA review of the use of electronics during takeoff and landing.

The FCC declined to comment to ABC News on the use of cellular signals on planes.

Testing and Waiting

The FCC's restriction of cellular capabilities aside, support for the use of non-cellular connected electronic devices during takeoff and landing seems to be growing, but it still appears passengers will be waiting for a while before they can keep their gadgets powered on.

While many pilots are using iPads during all phases of flight, and many experts say there is no evidence that electronics are interfering with planes' systems, significant testing would have to be done to make sure every device is safe. Each device and each of its different models (iPad 2, iPad Mini, 4th generation iPad, etc.) would have to be tested on each different plane model. That can take quite a long time -- up to two years, some experts say -- which means the FCC and the rest of us will be waiting for some time before we don't have to hear those announcements.

Matt Hosford and Jim Avila contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events