by Al Sacco

Why the FAA’s New Rules for In-Flight Electronics Use Still Need Work

Oct 31, 20134 mins
Consumer ElectronicsSmartphonesTablets

The FAA has modified its policies for the accepted use of personal electronics during takeoff and landing, but the new rules could prove ineffective and become a burden for flight attendants, according to's Al Sacco. Here's why.

Today, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that after an extensive review of current regulations on the use of gadgets, including smartphones and tablets, during airplane taxiing, takeoff and landing, airlines can now expand the safe use of these personal electronic devices (PEDs) during “all phases of flight.”

FAA PEDs flight rules

In other words, you won’t have to completely power off your smartphone while you wait for your flight to take off or when you near your destination. However, you will still need to switch your device to Airplane Mode, which disables all wireless radios, until your flight crew signals that its OK to turn them back on again. (Laptops and other larger electronics will still need to be stowed during takeoff and landing.)   So while you’ll be allowed to keep your smartphone on, you won’t be able to place cellular voice calls or send SMS messages. It’s also up to individual airlines to ensure that their fleet of aircraft is approved for PED use during takeoff and landing, so it could be a while before all U.S. air carriers adopt the new changes.  

From the FAA:

“The FAA has determined that airlines can safely expand passenger use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) during all phases of flight, and is immediately providing the airlines with guidance. Expanded use will not happen overnight. The process will vary among airlines, but the agency expects airlines to allow passengers to safely use their devices in airplane mode, gate-to-gate, by the end of 2013.”

This is a step in the right direction, but I travel a lot, and I know that many people already choose to ignore the instructions to power off their devices during takeoff and landing. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon to see morons people argue with flight attendants when it’s time to power down. Some folks even seem to enjoy explaining why they think it’s OK to continue using the devices.   These new changes could lead to new problems, because it’s difficult or impossible for flight attendants to police passengers and ensure that they’ve actually turned off their wireless radios when instructed to do so. And some of those same people who choose not to power down their devices today will just lie when asked if their devices are in Airplane Mode.  

The FAA is aware of this possibility:

“Will flight attendants now have to police passengers using PEDs?

“The PED rulemaking committee recommended — and the FAA agrees — that flight attendants cannot know when a device is ON and in airplane mode or not. We expect flight attendants to inform passengers about when it is safe to use PEDs and when they must turn them off for landing in some cases of poor visibility.”

Translation: If people aren’t going to turn off their cellular radios there’s not much airlines can do. And the FAA doesn’t seem too worried about the possibility of passengers sneakily using their cellular radios. So why even try to enforce the Airplane Mode rule in the first place? Obviously, the less potential for RF interference the better, and the more safe, but there’s still too much room for interpretation. And if you give travelers and inch they’ll take a mile.

The FAA has conceded what many critics have been saying for a long time: It’s OK to use gadgets throughout the duration of a flight, as long as wireless radios are turned off. But these rules still need tweaking, and frankly, I feel bad for the flight attendants tasked with enforcing the old policies after passengers learn of these rule changes, and then eventually enforcing the new Airplane Mode policy.

Visit the FAA’s PED page for more details.