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FAA eases electronics restrictions as on-board broadband expands

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 1:33pm
Brian Santo

The FAA has finally relaxed its rules limiting the use of most electronic devices during takeoffs and landings.

It remains to be seen if aviation authorities around the rest of the world will follow suit.

Passengers traveling on U.S.-based airline carriers will be able to use most electronic devices throughout their flights. The new rules do not apply to cell phones, whose use will continue to be prohibited on takeoff and landing, though airlines are gradually adding cellular service as a broadband connectivity option.

The number of commercial aircraft providing either Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity will reach 4,048 by the end of 2013, representing 21 percent of the global fleet, according to the latest research published by IHS. Of the 4,000 aircraft estimated to offer at least one of the two forms of connectivity in 2013, approximately 75 percent offer Wi-Fi-only. Wi-Fi connectivity is particularly widespread among North American airlines.

“The rising availability of in-flight wireless connectivity comes at a time when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) moves to loosen its rules for the usage of electronic devices on flights,” said Heath Lockett, senior analyst for aerospace at IHS. “The proportion of passengers actually connecting to wireless services on board is still very low, [with an] average in the single-digit percentages. The great challenge for airlines now is to inform passengers of the services they offer and to get them to pay for access. With the change in FAA rules garnering major attention in the media, the airlines now have a chance to get their message out to U.S. air travelers.”

The analysis firm estimates that broadband connectivity penetration in commercial aircraft is set to reach 50 percent by 2022.

Don't expect the changes to happen immediately, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Thursday at a news conference announcing new rules. How fast will vary by airline.

Delta and JetBlue said they would quickly submit plans to implement the new policy. Airlines will have to show the FAA that their airplanes meet the new guidelines and that they've updated their flight-crew training manuals, safety announcements and rules for stowing devices to reflect the new guidelines.

Currently, passengers are required to turn off their smartphones, tablets and other devices once a plane's door closes. They're not supposed to restart them until the planes reach 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) and the captain gives the go-ahead. Passengers are supposed to turn their devices off again as the plane descends to land and not restart them until it is on the ground.

Under the new guidelines, airlines whose planes are properly protected from electronic interference may allow passengers to use the devices during takeoffs, landings and taxiing, the FAA said. Most new airliners and other planes that have been modified so that passengers can use Wi-Fi at higher altitudes are expected to meet the criteria.

Passengers will also be able to connect to the Internet to surf, exchange emails, or download data below 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) if the plane has an installed Wi-Fi system, but not through cellular networks. Passengers will be told to switch their devices to airplane mode. Heavier devices such as laptops will continue to have to be stowed away because of concern they might injure someone if they go flying around the cabin.

The changes announced Thursday apply to both domestic and international flights by U.S. carriers, but the rules get a little tricky for international flights. On takeoff from the United States and during landing back in the U.S., passengers would be allowed to use electronics. However, when arriving or departing a foreign country, passengers would have to comply with local laws. Currently, most counties have their own prohibitions on electronic device use. However, they tend to follow the FAA's lead and likely could relax their own rules in the near future.

The guidelines reflect the evolution in types and prevalence of devices used by passengers over the past decade. In 2003, 70 percent of passengers carried electronic devices with them on planes, and the most common device was a cellphone that wasn't capable of connecting to the Internet, followed by a calculator, according to a survey by the Consumer Electronics Association. A follow-up survey by the association this year found that 99 percent of passengers carry some device with them, with smartphones the most common followed by notebook or laptop computers.

In-flight mobile phone calls will continue to be prohibited. Regulatory authority over phone calls belongs to the Federal Communications Commission, not the FAA. The commission prohibits the calls because of concern that phones on planes flying at hundreds of miles per hour could strain the ability of cellular networks to keep up as the devices keep trying to connect with cellphone towers, interfering with service to users on the ground.

An industry advisory committee created by the FAA to examine the issue recommended last month that the government permit greater use of personal electronic devices.

Pressure has been building on the FAA to ease restrictions on their use. Critics of the restraints such as Sen. Claire McCaskill say there is no valid safety reason for the prohibitions. Restrictions have also become more difficult to enforce as use of the devices has become ubiquitous. Some studies indicate as many as a third of passengers forget or ignore directions to turn off their devices.

The FAA began restricting passengers' use of electronic devices in 1966 in response to reports of interference with navigation and communications equipment when passengers began carrying FM radios, the high-tech gadgets of their day.

A lot has changed since then. New airliners are far more reliant on electrical systems than previous generations of aircraft, but they are also designed and approved by the FAA to be resistant to electronic interference. Airlines are already offering Wi-Fi use at cruising altitudes on planes modified to be more resistant to interference.

The vast majority of airliners should qualify for greater electronic device use under the new guidelines, Huerta said. In rare instances of landings during severe weather with low visibility, pilots may still order passengers to turn off devices because there is some evidence of potential interference with the use of instrument landing systems under those conditions, he said.

Today's electronic devices generally emit much lower power radio transmissions than previous generations of devices. E-readers, for example, emit only minimal transmissions when turning a page. But transmissions are stronger when devices are downloading or sending data.

Among those pressing for a relaxation of restrictions on passengers' use of the devices has been Amazon.com. In 2011, company officials loaded an airliner full of their Kindle e-readers and flew it around to test for problems but found none.

A travel industry group welcomed the changes, calling them common-sense accommodations for a traveling public now bristling with technology. "We're pleased the FAA recognizes that an enjoyable passenger experience is not incompatible with safety and security," said Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.

 

International

While the U.S. FAA says it is relaxing restrictions on the use of smartphones and other electronics inside American airplanes. Passengers are still barred from making calls or downloading data off a cellular network during takeoff or landing, but the OK on using laptops, consoles, e-readers, and other electronics at the beginning and end of each flight will come as a relief to many U.S. travelers. Here's a look at what may be in store for air travelers in the rest of the world.

Will others follow the FAA's footsteps?

That seems likely. Across the Atlantic, Britain's Civil Aviation Authority on Friday said it welcomed the FAA's move, noting that electronic devices were a fact of modern life and "naturally passengers want to use them when they fly." Still, it said that European authorities in Brussels would have the final say over whether to loosen rules across the continent.

One academic who has studied the issue said European regulators first followed America's lead in banning use of the devices during takeoff and landing and were likely to follow America's lead again now that the situation had changed.

"American safety is regarded as a gold standard," said Joseph Lampel, a professor of strategy and innovation at London's City University and a critic of the current rules. He acknowledged that European regulators had become increasingly independent of their American counterparts, but said it still seemed likely that they would relax the restrictions, which he said "never made any sense."

There was no answer at the European Aviation Safety Agency on Friday, a public holiday in some parts of Europe.

WHAT HAPPENS IF NOT EVERYONE AGRESS TO CHANGE THE RULES?

Conceivably, a passenger traveling from New York to London would be allowed to use a games console on takeoff but would have to turn it off before landing. If that passenger took the same plane home, he or she would have to turn the console off on takeoff but be allowed to use it on landing. It's a confusing scenario aviation officials say they're working to avoid.

"That's exactly the kind of situation that (International Civil Aviation Organization) is trying to mitigate right now," said spokesman Anthony Philbin. "Our main concern is that we don't want to see separate regulations set in place in different places in the world."

Philbin said a group of international state and industry representatives is currently studying the issue.

HOW ARE INTERNATIONAL AIRLINES REACTING?

Airlines across the globe said they were still digesting the FAA's turnaround, but a few of them released statements suggesting that they expected similar moves elsewhere.

Air New Zealand, the country's national carrier, said it seemed "probable that a similar approach will be adopted in this jurisdiction in time." Qantas, Australia's largest airline, said in a statement that it was "always interested in regulatory developments that could benefit passengers" and would be looking closely at the FAA's decision.

German airline company Lufthansa, which has long championed the use of data services in the cabin, welcomed the FAA decision but said it was concerned that rules might now vary according to the airline or the destination.

"We hope these standards will be featured worldwide," spokesman Michael Lamberty said.

British Airways, Air France-KLM, and Virgin Atlantic did not immediately return messages.

The majority of this report was provided by the Associated Press

IHS Inc., is the source for the chart.

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