Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: FAA should bring electronic-device policies up to speed

May 5, 2012

I was visiting a relative in the hospital a while back and noticed that the hospital no longer restricts the use of cell phones within their walls. Hallelujah, the days of unreasonable fears that personal electronics will interfere with instrumentation are over. Or are they? Turns out they’re still alive and well and living in the Federal Aviation Administration, the helpful bureaucracy that oversees all aviation safety in the United States.

Now, I’m all for safety in the air, but it beats me how a Kindle could possibly produce enough spurious radiation to make a flight to Denver think it’s over Acapulco. But that’s the way the FAA has wanted it for years now, as anyone who has taken to the air with ear buds and an MP3 player can attest.

The rule is that you can’t use electronic devices during taxi, takeoff or landing, when presumably the airplane is at its most electronically vulnerable. And it’s long been known that the rule was based on nothing more than speculation bordering on paranoia. The evidence against the devices is purely anecdotal; pilots have occasionally seen jiggly behavior in their instruments that supposedly stopped when they had passengers shut down their laptops or other gadgetry. Anecdotes are no substitute for data.

Interestingly, the Discovery Channel’s intrepid “Mythbusters” did confirm that cell phone signals could interfere with older aviation equipment, but that’s not why cell phone use is banned in the air. It’s actually believed that the FCC objects to it because cell phone use while flying high overhead engages too many towers, leading to overuse of the cell phone network.

But Kindles? iPads? MP3 players?

As it turns out, there are no studies that show these devices causing the slightest problem with any airplane systems. The FAA is simply far behind the curve and has left the situation in the airlines’ hands. But in doing so, the FAA has given the airlines such stringent regulations that no airline can comply. The FAA permits any airline to submit evidence that a device is safe and it will likely be approved, but the airline must test such a device on a flight, with no passengers, and it must do so for each and every device for which it wants approval.

So if American Airlines wants to get the Kindle Fire approved, it has to put one on a plane, take it up for a lengthy joy ride with no passengers on board, use the device and record both the device’s emissions and the avionics responses. It would have to do a separate test for the basic Kindle. Then the iPad. Then the iPad 2. And so on through the entire catalog of devices. And it would have to repeat the tests on every model of airplane in its fleet.

At last count, American Airlines alone had six models in its fleet. You get 11 varieties if you count its subsidiary American Eagle. Excluding cell phones, there are more than a hundred popular devices of all kinds sold around the world. That works out to more than 1,100 tests. It’s possible the FAA would allow one test for similar aircraft models, but that doesn’t reduce the cost incurred by much. That’s just for the popular devices. See why the airlines have balked?

At long last, it appears the FAA is considering doing the research itself. A New York Times blogger named Nick Bilton recently reported that the FAA might conduct its own tests soon. What Bilton doesn’t say is that the FAA has been nudged by Congress to do something, because Congress itself has been inundated by complaints from regular travelers unimpressed by FAA mandates that now seem suspiciously out of date and lacking empirical evidence.

The question is, when does risk avoidance become absurdity? The FAA doesn’t ban the Nook because it’s a proven hazard. It bans it because the image of an aircraft plunging from the sky into a housing addition in Peoria is too awful to contemplate. It’s the same reason the TSA confiscates nail clippers and hair gel. But in a modern world, that line has to be adjusted with more evidence and less paranoia.

I’m sure air travelers will happily shut off their tablets if it turns out the devices can kill plane loads of people. But lacking any proof of it, the relevant authorities need to revisit the situation. The public no longer accepts hollow proclamations with the same naïve grace.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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