Passengers' growing appetite for electronic gadgets and WiFi access is creating problems for airlines eager to sate that appetite. The challenge lies in enforcing myriad company policies and federal laws covering wireless communications.
As airlines test and equip their planes for in-flight WiFi, they have to figure out how to catch people using prohibited devices (or approved devices at the wrong time) with no practical means of detecting radio-based technologies that can operate out of sight in briefcases, carry-on bags or even pockets.
It’s just the latest in a set of challenges the airlines have faced with the rapid evolution of consumer electronics. The past decade has been marked by the relentless convergence of multiple technologies into single, easily concealed devices.
A single smartphone, for example, can combine the once-discrete electronics of a computer, a cellphone, a video game device, a GPS, a voice recorder, a music player, a still camera, a video camera and a broadband modem or even a wireless router.
Compounding the airlines’ challenge is that some of those functions are allowed at any time during a flight, some are never allowed, and still others are allowed only after the plane has reached a cruising altitude. The hapless flight attendant who spots a passenger using such a device at any point during the flight has no way of knowing for certain which technology is functioning at any given moment.
And even if the flight attendant can see the device and can determine how it is being used, the passenger can easily engage in prohibited activity with a tap of a key or a flick of a switch as soon as the crew member has continued down the aisle or becomes busy with other responsibilities.
"I’m finding more and more questions about this all the time," said Delta spokesman Paul Skrbec. "There is more of a crossover of devices. Take the iPhone, for example. You can’t use it as a cellphone, but you can turn off the cellphone and just use WiFi. That’s allowed."
The airlines base their wireless-access policies on FAA and Federal Trade Commission regulations, and it’s up to the carriers to ensure that neither they nor their passengers run afoul of the rules.
Generally speaking, federal law prohibits cellular phones, wireless communications devices and other portable electronic devices — PEDs, in industry parlance — with radio transmitters while onboard U.S.-registered commercial aircraft.
The concern has been that small electronic devices that emit radio waves could wreak havoc with avionics systems, although there’s never been any ironclad evidence to justify that concern on the part of federal regulators.
At the same time, portable voice recorders, hearing aids, pacemakers and electronic shavers — all of which can produce small amounts of radio frequency interference — are permitted.
FAA regulations also allow passengers to use PEDs that lack radio transmitters, such as laptops and music players, at altitudes above 10,000 feet on a case-by-case basis, if an airline demonstrates that there would be no interference with the aircraft’s navigation or communications equipment during critical flight phases.
Before the airlines started to enter the wireless realm, technology limitations pretty much served as self-enforcement, Skrbec said. Mobile phones and other prohibited devices do not work in an airplane zooming miles above terrestrial cell towers.
"The mechanics restricted it," Skrbec said.
But now, technology and WiFi access make it possible to mix and match myriad devices or services. The airlines are trying to cope by prohibiting passengers from using any active electronic devices during takeoffs and landings, though it can be tricky to differentiate active devices from passive devices.
For example, most headphones are passive and can be worn during takeoff if whatever they’re attached to is switched off. But noise-canceling headphones are active devices because they have their own electronic circuitry for processing ambient noise.
"Basically, we say, ‘If there’s an on-off switch … turn it off,’ " Skrbec said.
Moreover, evolving technologies are forcing airlines to deal with other, related challenges. For example, carriers that offer onboard WiFi are banning websites that some passengers might find offensive.
But there are ways around such enforcement: One company, Anchor Free, offers a free virtual private network that can encrypt each page and each email, preventing such airline censorship.
"You can access it anywhere," Anchor Free CEO David Gorodyansky said.
In the end, Skrbec said, "We rely on the professionalism of our flight attendants. They address these things while on the flight. They are our eyes and ears."
While every major airline has some program for testing or upgrading aircraft for in-flight WiFi service, Delta is among the carriers racing ahead of the pack.
The airline offered cellular-based Gogo WiFi on 242 aircraft as of Oct. 19. "We will have more than 300 WiFi-equipped aircraft by the end of 2009," Skrbec said. "An additional 200 pre-merger Northwest aircraft are on schedule to be completed by mid-2010. We expect to have 530 WiFi-equipped aircraft on the combined fleet by June 2010."
Another airline riding the WiFi wave is AirTran, which this year became the first carrier to equip its entire fleet with wireless service. AirTran CFO Arne Haak said the carrier sees WiFi as attractive bait for luring business-class travelers.
"If the economic recovery comes more quickly, we believe that our investments and the series of high-quality amenities like business class, our corporate sales program, and fleetwide WiFi Internet should allow us to participate in a recovery that may be driven by higher business travel demand," Haak told Wall Street analysts during the airline’s third-quarter earnings call last week.
But the focus so far has been on developing domestic networks. Designing and implementing services for long-haul, overseas flights is more challenging.
For example, most airlines now use ground-based cell networks that would not work on transoceanic flights. So in those cases, they would have to switch to satellite-based systems, which would require greater investments to reconfigure the airline equipment.
The airlines also would have to contend with the possibility of conflicting international regulations. For example, European Union rules allow passengers to use cellphones.
Lufthansa, which relaunched its transatlantic WiFi service last month using a satellite network, is forbidding passengers from using cellphones.
But spokeswoman Jennifer Janzen said passengers would have access to Skype, a Web-based application that can be used for text or voice communications.
"On our planes, they can use Skype for text messaging but not for voice," Janzen said.
The only way to enforce the rule, she acknowledged, would be to rely on flight attendants to detect abuses or for other passengers to snitch.