The big turnoff

Of all the warnings the airlines give us, the one that likely arouses the most suspicion is about turning off our electronic devices. Nobody really believes that an iPod or a Kindle can bring down an airplane.

On the other hand, who really knows?

There appears to be a body of anecdotal evidence from airline crews about personal electronic devices, or PEDs, interfering with airline electronics, but the science is sketchy. No U.S. airline accident has ever been blamed on such interference.

(On the other hand, none have been blamed on snakes either, but that doesn’t mean we should allow them in the cockpit.)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been monitoring this phenomenon since the 1960s, when the big concern was portable FM radios. (Yes, Virginia, some of them were about the size of a deck of cards and used a horribly primitive “earplug.”)

In retelling that history, the FAA said it concluded that airlines were “best suited to make the determination of which PEDs would not cause interference with the navigation or communication system on their aircraft” because it would be “an excessive and unnecessary burden” for the government to do it.

That remains the FAA’s position today, 50 years later.

Given the mushrooming variety of toys and tools that have been spawned by the digital age, we can understand why the FAA doesn’t want to operate a PED testing lab today any more than it did in the 1960s. But it is equally unreasonable to expect several dozen airlines to undertake duplicative analysis and testing of every device on the market.

Predictably, this being the airline industry, most carriers simply match each other in following an FAA recommendation, based on a technical committee’s advice, to simply turn everything off during takeoff and landing and allow the use of approved devices (a term that usually excludes cellphones) only after the aircraft reaches a safe altitude.

One underlying theory of this approach appears to be, who really knows?

The FAA is now planning to empanel an advisory committee of experts and gather public comments with an eye toward putting more certainty into this situation, and maybe more flexibility.

According to the FAA, “the desired outcome ... is to have sufficient information to allow operators to better assess whether more widespread use of PEDs during flight is appropriate.”

In other words, with better tools, airlines might be in a better position to accommodate their passengers.

The FAA expects to be receiving comments from airlines, airline crews, passengers, the electronics industry and others, and these could make for fun reading. But the technical questions that the FAA is asking may produce the most interesting results.

For example, the FAA is thinking about:
• More data-sharing among airlines and manufacturers.
• Design and manufacturing standards that could make aircraft more resistant to interference.
• Onboard monitoring systems that could detect electronic hazards.
• Consumer electronics industry standards for “aircraft-friendly” PEDs.

It’s been a while since we’ve said this about anything coming out of the FAA, but we like all of these ideas.
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