For frequent travelers, one of the biggest drawbacks to ereaders is that they can’t be used during taxi, takeoff and landing on commercial airline flights. As other passengers relax with newspapers or old fashioned books, tech savvy travelers have to twiddle their thumbs while the airplane moves to the runway and climbs through 10,000 feet. That may be about to change soon.
This week The Hill learned that Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, had sent a letter to the acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Michael Huerta, recommending that the FAA “enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices” in flight.
Earlier this year, The Hill reported that the FAA was studying the possibility of allowing expanded use of electronic devices. While the FAA study specifically excluded the use of “voice communications” in flight, the FCC recommendation may pave the way for passengers to use tablets, ereaders, MP3 players and DVD players during all phases of flight.
Last year, American Airlines became the first airline to allow its pilots to use iPads to access charts and manuals in flight. Many passengers have undoubtedly wondered why pilots can use electronic devices when passengers cannot.
If the FAA does approve expanded use of electronic devices, passengers will likely still be limited to using “airplane mode.” The FAA will probably not allow the use of devices that transmit or receive while the aircraft is in flight. According to the FCC website, both agencies prohibit the use of wireless devices in flight “because of potential interference to the aircraft’s navigation and communication systems.”
The FCC had considered allowing in-flight use of wireless devices in 2007, but decided that there was insufficient information to determine whether airborne devices could harm networks on the ground. Passengers would still be able to purchase internet access from a provider such as Gogo if their plane is equipped.
The FAA points out that cell phones are different from other electronic devices because they transmit signals over long distances. To allow phones to be used for voice communications in flight, the air carrier would have to demonstrate that each particular model of phone would not interfere with each particular type of aircraft. The extensive testing required would make certification costs prohibitively expensive. The FAA does allow phones to be used for voice communications after landing as the plane taxies to the gate.
The FAA website also notes that most domestic airlines block the use of Skype and other voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) applications through their in-flight internet service providers. This is not because of an FAA restriction, but because most passengers don’t want to hear other passengers talking on the phone. This makes it questionable whether airlines would permit in-flight voice communications even if the FAA and FCC allowed them.
Any FAA rule change regarding electronic devices is unlikely to come before this year’s Christmas travel season. If you want to use your electronic device during your holiday air travel, keep it handy, but don’t turn it on until after takeoff.