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New F.A.A. rules on use of electronics could be tricky to enforce

On a future airline flight, you might be able to read that latest e-book or listen to a podcast during takeoff. Current regulations restrict the use of portable electronics at low altitudes but the rules are under review. According to the New York Times, the F.A.A. is meeting this week to finalize some lighter restrictions:

 The guidelines are expected to allow reading e-books or other publications, listening to podcasts, and watching videos, according to several of the panel’s members who requested anonymity because they could not comment on the recommendations. The ban on making phone calls, as well as sending and receiving e-mails and text messages or using Wi-Fi, is expected to remain in place, the panel members said.

As the owner of multiple mobile devices who flies at least a half-dozen times a year, this is great news. As someone who writes about the mobile industry, however, I think any relaxed rules will be tough to enforce, particularly if the F.A.A. tries to discern different device types.

Why? It’s becoming difficult to tell a phone from a tablet these days. Yes, a 10-inch slate is easy to spot in crowd, but what about a phone that has a 5- or 6-inch screen? There are even some tablets with 7-inch screens that support cellular voice. And nearly all of these e-book readers and small tablets are available with mobile broadband options.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7: Best small slate yet? Thumbnail

The problem I see is that airline attendants won’t really be able to tell if a device is trying to connect to a service over Wi-Fi or mobile broadband.

Sure, if they see you yapping on a handset that’s near your ear, that’s an easy tell. But what about getting a last-minute e-book from the cloud during takeoff? There’s no way to spot that. Having an instant message conversation? Yes, they’d see you typing, but what’s to stop people from switching into a note-taking app and saying they were just making a to-do list? Heck, you could switch to your approved e-book reading app and make it look like you were adding an annotation.

I think the expected FAA action is good; don’t get me wrong. But these days, mobile devices can be used for a nearly infinite amount of activities. Trying to ban certain ones is going to be a tricky situation.

7 Responses to “New F.A.A. rules on use of electronics could be tricky to enforce”

  1. markchahn

    This kind of report (and all the comments) MISS THE POINT: if any of our mobile devices can interfere dangerously with the plane’s systems, then the plane is catastrophically mis-designed! After all, if the FUD were true, Bad Guys would be crashing or disrupting flights all the time – and there’s no practical way to eliminate them.

    In short: plane systems should be immune to disruption by consumer electronics – heck, they should be incredibly resistant to *deliberate*, non-CE attack, shouldn’t they? Accomplishing this is not particularly hard: frequency hopping, encryption and some basic antenna design.

  2. I think the ‘dangers’ of using a mobile device have always been highly exaggerated.

    I guess if someone would rather play “Words Are Fun” than pay attention to the safety instructions they’ll pay for it if the plane crashes.

  3. The rules are asinine. There are no (0, ZERO) reports of cell phones interfering with aircraft avionics. There is no technical reason to think that there is any way they could interfere. The show Mythbusters did an episode on this and learned what many of us already knew — ti doesn’t happen. So, who cares if people turn off their phones? The only reason I do, when flying commercially, is to save the battery.

    I say this as a pilot who’s used a cell phone within inches of the avionics in small aircraft, on the ground, and in flight; avionics that are a lot less well shielded than those in transport category aircraft, and where the phone is at most a couple of feet from both the radios and the antenna, not dozens of feet away as in a big aircraft (remember that signal strength is an inversely proportional to the square of the distance).

  4. Nahuel Prieto

    That could be controlled by software. The same restriction systems used on companies could be used on planes. The plane should have its own wi-fi network, making these restrictions itself. And it should be legally mandatory to use that network and only that network inside the plane. Also, there could be added local interference in any other internet access used frequency, to ensure this regulation isn’t being violated. This way everyone on the plane is connected to the local Wi-Fi, and the crew will be able to decide what operations can be done and those that will be forbidden. Easy as that, problem solved. The calls… that’s a different issue…

    • That is already in place for airlines that offer wifi..unfortunately they can only control the signal once they have reached a certain elevation. On the ground is another thing and restricting usage while on the ground is going to be tricky because then that would envolve the airport restricting coverage to the airport terminal and the the tarmack…it would just be very labor intensive…