Rejoice! FAA to Review Airplane Gadget Restrictions

The F.A.A. says it will soon review its current regulations for the use of tablets and e-readers on airplanes during taxiing, takeoff and landing. But don't ditch those magazines and newspapers; it could take years before any restrictions are lifted—and the U.S. agency isn't yet planning to approve smartphones or handhelds.

I hate flying. I'm not afraid of a fiery, airborne death or anything like that, not really. I just detest being jammed into too-small seats and rubbing elbows—literally—with other disgruntled travelers for extended periods of time.

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Whenever I do have to fly, I always take solace in my electronic gadgets—namely my BlackBerry PlayBook, which I use to read e-books, listen to music, play games, and when in-flight Wi-Fi is available, surf the Web and complain to my Twitter followers incessantly. But current U.S. in-flight gadget restrictions keep me from using my precious tablet during some of the worst parts of my flights: taxi, takeoff and landing. And that sucks, especially since it's basically been proven that as long as your wireless radios are turned off, or if your device doesn't have any sort of wireless radio, your gadget doesn't interfere with airplanes anyway.

Thankfully (finally) the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.) is about to review its current guidelines for the use of tablets and e-readers on airplanes.

The F.A.A.'s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, Laura J. Brown, told The New York Times Bits blog that her agency will soon take a “fresh look” at current restrictions on gadget use on planes, though it will at first examine how it and airlines can more efficiently test and approve tablets and e-readers—not smartphones.

Currently airlines must request to have specific gadgets approved for use on planes by the F.A.A., according to the Bits blog, and to do so, the airlines must test individual gadgets and then prove that they don't interfere with airplane avionics. And not only do airlines have to test specific gadget models (iPad, iPad 2 and the new iPad, for example) the carriers also need to test the individual gadgets on every type of airplane in their fleets and on flights without any passengers. As you can imagine, this process is both time consuming and costly for airlines, and therefore, prohibitive.

So the F.A.A. says it will look into how it, along with airlines, gadget makers, aviation-industry groups, pilots, flight attendants and passengers can work together to speed up the gadget-approval process.

"With the advent of new and evolving electronic technology, and because the airlines have not conducted the testing necessary to approve the use of new devices, the FAA is taking a fresh look at the use of personal electronic devices, other than cellphones, on aircraft," Brown told the Bits blog.

Of course, nothing has really changed yet, and it may be quite some time before anything does, if it does at all. A number of important questions still need to be answered, as well, and there are some interesting implications associated with approving some devices and not others. (For example, how will flight attendants determine which models of gadgets passengers are using? And how will they tell the guy with the iPad he can use his tablet but the Android tablet owner he can't?) But this is definitely a step in the right direction, and it is great news for techy travelers.

I'm also glad that the F.A.A. still isn't even considering an approval of cellphones or VoWi-Fi phones on airplanes. As stated in a blog post I penned years ago on the subject, the last thing I want to do is listen to your phone calls at 30,000 feet, though it's probably only a matter of time until I have no choice.

AS

NYT Bits blog via Engadget

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