Airline regulators told to sort out flight gadget rules

It’s time to get real about the rules governing electrical device use on flights. That’s what one government agency is telling another.

Earlier this year the Federal Aviation Administration began a study of whether the current strict rules on gadget use need to be updated. The main issue was whether devices that aren’t emitting radio waves, such as those which don’t have an Internet connection or are in flight mode, should be usable during take-off and landing. The FAA made clear it would not even be looking into changing rules on voice calls.

So far there has been no official word from the study and one man at least is tired of waiting. Federal Communication Chairman Julius Genachowski has written to the FAA’s acting chief Michael Huerta telling him it is time to change the rules to ” enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices.”

Genachowski says the changes are particularly important now that mobile devices are such an important part of so many people’s lives and that they can boost both small and large business activity.

The situation is somewhat confused as both agencies have rules restricting in-flight use. The FAA’s rules govern the potential effects wireless and other portable electronic devices could have on aircraft navigation and communication systems. Meanwhile the FCC has its own in-flight restrictions on cellphones that operate at particular frequencies and could interfere with wireless networks on the ground. A review into the FCC rules that started in 2004 was abandoned three years later because officials couldn’t get a clear enough handle on whether such interference was possible and decided it was better safe than sorry.

The FAA’s own testing in the past has been inconclusive about the effects of electrical gadgets. As with the FCC, the decision has been that items will be only be approved when they can be proven safe.

The FAA did approve iPads for use by pilots earlier this year, allowing them to use a host of custom apps including storing aircraft manuals that normally take up hundreds of printed pages weighing as much as 35 pounds. Although the FAA said its testing showed such use wasn’t a risk, the testing was based on a maximum of two iPads rather than the unpredictable number that could be used by passengers.

(Image credit: American Airlines)

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