FAA: Policies for
Portable Electronics on Airplanes Being Reviewed
June 21, 2013
Anyone who has flown on a commercial airliner has heard the flight
attendant tell passengers to turn off all cell phones, computers,
e-readers and other devices once the cabin door is closed, and leave
them off until the plane reaches 10,000 feet.
The FAA recognizes this is an area of intense consumer interest, so the
agency has brought all the important stakeholders together to facilitate
a discussion on this issue. A government-industry group is now studying
the current policies and procedures aircraft operators use to determine
when these portable electronic devices (PEDs) can be used safely during
flight. The goal is to help air carriers and operators decide if they
can allow more widespread use of electronic devices in today’s aircraft.
The group, called an Aviation Rulemaking Committee, is examining a
variety of issues including the testing methods aircraft operators use
to determine which new technologies passengers can safely use aboard
aircraft and when they can use them. They also are looking at
technological standards associated with the use of PEDs during any phase
of flight. The group began its business in January and will hold
periodic meetings through September, after which it will give its report
and recommendations to the FAA.
The group is not considering the use of cell phones for voice
communications during flight because Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) regulations prohibit any airborne calls using cell phones.
What’s Behind the Current Policy?
The technology for portable electronic devices (PEDs) has been around
for many years and is still used in today’s electronics, but there are
many uncertainties about the radio signals the devices give off. Even
PEDs that do not intentionally transmit signals can emit unintentional
radio energy. This energy may affect aircraft safety because the signals
can occur at the same frequencies used by the plane’s highly sensitive
communications, navigation, flight control and electronic equipment.
Current FAA guidance says passengers should turn off tablets, e-readers
and any other PEDs with an “OFF” switch during takeoff and landing. This
is to prevent potential interference that could pose a safety hazard as
the cockpit crew focuses on arrival and departure duties. On a given
flight, there could be hundreds of different PEDs in many different
states of function or repair giving off spurious signals, so without
proper testing there is no assurance they will not produce interference
during these critical phases of flight.
The FAA permits an airline to demonstrate a particular device does not
interfere with a plane’s electronic systems and provides oversight of
the carrier’s process for determining when PEDs can be used.
Tablets as Electronic Flight Bags for Pilots
Today, many air carriers are asking to use tablet computers in the
cockpit as part of an “electronic flight bag,” in lieu of carrying bulky
paper navigation charts and manuals. As part of its rigorous approval
process, the FAA requires an air carrier to satisfactorily perform
electromagnetic interference tests on the specific types of aircraft in
which the device will be used. These tests must be performed with the
tablet configured as it will be used in flight by the pilot. Typically,
the carrier does these demonstrations prior to an FAA-approved six-month
If a carrier successfully completes the evaluation period and the FAA
inspector overseeing its operations gives a final authorization, the
carrier’s pilots no longer have to carry paper copies of documents that
are loaded onto and accessible from the tablet.
The FAA instructs air carriers and pilots that using tablets for
activities not related to flight duties is a safety risk, and
regulations prohibit such distractions.
FAA regulations already permit the airlines to demonstrate that a tablet
computer will not create interference in the cabin as well as the
cockpit. However, an airline would have to conduct extensive analysis
and testing to address the differences in where the tablets are used,
emissions from multiple tablets, and other considerations to demonstrate
that unrestricted use would not interfere with any of the aircraft
Data-Driven Safety Decisions
From 2003 to 2006, the RTCA, an organization the FAA tasks to bring
together groups of experts for studies of technical matters related to
agency policies, looked at interference from intentionally transmitting
PEDs such as cell phones and WiFi transmitters in laptops.The final RTCA
report concluded there is insufficient information to support a change
in the current policy that defines the operator’s requirements for
allowing use of PEDs.
Although e-readers and tablet computers were not available for consumer
use during the RTCA research, the basic technologies in these devices
are not significantly different from those the group studied. For
example, e-readers typically include an embedded mobile phone and a WiFi
transmitter. Overall, the work done by the RTCA still applies to today’s
Cell Phones Cell
phones (and other intentional transmitters) differ from most PEDs in
that they are designed to send out signals strong enough to be received
at great distances. Since 1991, the FCC has banned the inflight use of
cell phones because of potential interference with ground networks. FAA
guidance does allow cell phone calls once the plane has landed and is
taxiing to the gate.
Today, airlines usually allow passengers to use newer-model phones in
"airplane" mode above 10,000 feet. This mode disables the transmitter so
the phone can’t make calls, but lets users play games, check an address
or look at the phone’s calendar.
Safety is always the FAA’s top priority. The agency already supports
development of new PED-tolerant aircraft designs and has published
criteria for aircraft manufacturers to establish such tolerance. The FAA
will use a data-driven process to make sure any changes to existing PED
policy are supported by data, and ensure there are no impacts to safety
and security. Ultimately, testing is the responsibility of each airline.