A feature of modern air travel is the ritual shutting down of electronic gadgets before take-off and landing. The FAA is taking another look at whether this is really necessary.

A little-loved feature of modern air travel, along with security lines, cramped legroom, and overstuffed overheads, is the pre-takeoff ritual where the flight attendant says, “You must now turn off all personal electronic devices. Anything with an on/off switch must be in the off position.” And the same thing again as the plane is preparing to land.

The FAA is taking another look at whether this procedure is really necessary.

Current FAA rules prohibit the operation of all personal electronic devices (PEDs) at all times during the flight, except for hearing aids and heart pacemakers (understandable) and also electric shavers and portable voice recorders (less so). The FAA rule is here. Individual airlines can authorize departures from the rule; most have followed an FAA recommendation to allow use of a PED without an active transmitter at altitudes above 10,000 feet – about five minutes after takeoff and fifteen minutes before landing. Most airlines prohibit transmitters throughout the flight (this includes cell phones, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, except to use airline-provided Wi-Fi services), and still require all devices to be turned off below 10,000 feet.

These rules date back to the mid-1960s, when the FAA’s main concerns were electrical interference into the aircraft’s communications and navigation gear. Since then, as aircraft have become increasingly computerized and electronic displays proliferated in the cockpit, the possible on-board targets of interference have increased. Over the same time period, passengers’ gadgets have likewise become computerized and have proliferated. And passenger complaints about being cut off from their devices have steadily mounted.

The FAA has now launched a comprehensive review of PEDs and their actual risk to aircraft safety.

We hope the FAA will address some of the present inconsistencies.

Particularly puzzling is the exception for electric shavers, because shavers, like anything with a motor, are a potentially significant source of interference.   Back in the ’60s, of course, when people still dressed up to fly, they paid more attention to their grooming than do today’s passengers, many of whom look ready for an evening scarfing pizza alone in front of the TV, except in less formal clothes. The airlines may simply have wanted to help their formerly classy customers eliminate that unsightly five o’clock shadow en route. In contrast to the shavers, today’s U.S. consumer electronics that lack a transmitter (or are set to “airplane mode”) must meet an extremely low limit for stray radio-frequency emissions. Measured in nanowatts, these signals probably present little threat to cockpit equipment.

Unfortunately, the airplane mode that turns off a device’s transmitters can be hard to find. Smartphones and the iPad make it reasonably easy, but some other tablets and e-readers take a lot of patient digging through the menus – assuming the user even remembers these devices have Wi-Fi that comes under the in-flight ban.

For what it’s worth, FCC Chairman Genachowski – a champion of all things wireless – has enthusiastically endorsed the FAA’s willingness to re-think its PED rules.

The FCC has its own inconsistent rules on the operation of cell phones in aircraft. U.S. mobile voice service operates in two different frequency bands, under two different sets of rules. The odd result is a blanket prohibition of cell phone use while airborne in the 800 MHz band, but no prohibition at all in the 1.9 GHz band. The purpose of the ban is not aircraft safety, the FCC has said, but rather to prevent a high-altitude phone from tying up cell towers over a wide area – a rationale we’d think applies equally to 1.9 GHz. The FAA has its own cell-phone ban on all frequencies. And we fervently hope they keep it in place, regardless of cockpit interference concerns. Flying is bad enough without someone two feet away jabbering in our ear for hours at a stretch.

The deadline for submitting comments to the FAA is October 30, 2012. To participate, email your views to PEDcomment@faa.gov. Or go to this page on the regulations.gov site and click “Comment Now!” on the right. Just don’t do it from an airplane.