Public figures from Sen. Claire McCaskill to actor Alec Baldwin have bristled at what they say are excessive rules restricting use of tablets, smartphones, laptops and other devices during flights.
More than a decade of pilot reports and scientific studies tell a different story. Government and airline reporting systems have logged dozens of cases in which passenger electronics were suspected of interfering with navigation, radios and other aviation equipment.
The FAA in January appointed an advisory committee from the airline and technology industries to recommend whether or how to broaden electronics use in planes. The agency will consider the committee’s recommendations, which are expected in July, it said in a statement.
Laboratory tests have shown some devices broadcast radio waves powerful enough to interfere with airline equipment, according to NASA, aircraft manufacturer Boeing and Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Even Delta Air Lines, which argued for relaxed rules, told the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration its pilots and mechanics reported 27 suspected incidents of passenger electronics causing aircraft malfunctions from 2010 to 2012. Atlanta-based Delta said it couldn’t verify there was interference in any of those cases.
The airline industry has been divided. Delta said in its filing that it welcomes more electronics use because that’s what its passengers wanted. United Continental Holdings said it preferred no changes because they’d be difficult for flight attendants to enforce.
CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington trade group representing mobile companies, and Amazon.com, the Seattle online retailer that sells the Kindle e-reader, urged the U.S. FAA last year to allow wider use of devices. Personal electronics don’t cause interference, CTIA said in a blog post last year.
The FAA prohibits use of electronics while a plane is below 10,000 feet, with the exception of portable recording devices, hearing aids, pacemakers and electric shavers. Once a flight gets above that altitude, devices can be used in “airplane mode,” which blocks their ability to broadcast radio signals, according to the FAA. There’s an exception for devices that aircraft manufacturers or an airline demonstrates are safe, such as laptops that connect to approved Wi-Fi networks.
The potential risks from personal electronic devices are increasing as the U.S. aviation system transitions to satellite-based navigation, according to the FAA. To improve efficiency, planes will fly closer together using GPS technology.
As a result, interference from electronics “cannot be tolerated,” the FAA said last year.
Four in 10 airline passengers surveyed in December by groups including the CEA said they want to be able to use electronic devices in all phases of flight. Thirty percent of passengers in that same study said they’d accidentally left on a device during a flight.