Airlines are cleared to allow “Airplane Mode” devices even during take-off and landing. Cell phone calls are still barred.

A lot of us hate turning off our electronic devices for take-off and landing. We have to sit there, bored, and leaf through the SkyMall catalogue, hoping the pilot knows what he’s doing. Sure we have a book, but it’s in the overhead bin, while we are strapped into the seat. All but the Luddites among us have a range of devices – tablets, smart phones, notebooks, music players, etc., etc. – to distract ourselves. But just try to turn one on during take-off or landing, and the normally pleasant and accommodating flight attendants turn surly.

Somebody ought to do something.

In fact, somebody – in this case, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – had done something. It had adopted a rule that stood firmly behind those surly flight attendants. The alleged reason was that emissions from a Kindle reader or other personal electronic device somehow interfered with the cockpit equipment and would take the plane off course, or something like that. 

We were always suspicious of that argument; the maximum emissions from a device in Airplane Mode are extremely low, measured in nanowatts. The argument sounded even thinner when we learned the pilots were allowed to use iPads in the cockpit. Right next to all the supposedly interference-prone equipment. 

We reported over a year ago that the FAA was rethinking the take-off-and-landing rule, and was taking comments on whether to drop it.

The wait is over.

The FAA has announced it will allow airlines to let their passengers use devices throughout the flight. Devices will have to be in Airplane Mode (transmitters turned off), except for Wi-Fi-enabled devices on aircraft that provide Wi-Fi service. Heavier laptops will have to be stowed, since they could become dangerous projectiles in some circumstances. Voice cell phone calls remain prohibited for now. (Whew.)

The FAA left the exact timing of the change to the individual airlines, although airlines will first have to follow new FAA-developed procedures designed to insure that each airline’s fleet can tolerate interference from electronic devices, and then get FAA approval. We expect there will be strong and immediate pressure from passengers that will motivate the airlines to move quickly.

The expansion of permitted Wi-Fi operations may also step up pressure on the FCC to improve air-ground data service

Still pending is the more controversial question of cell phone use in flight. The FAA is already looking at that issue.  But it’s something of a hot potato because, while most travelers don’t mind sitting next to a fellow passenger quietly playing Words with Friends, they do resent having to listen to the same fellow passenger describe the details of recent surgery on the phone.

The FAA seems to recognize the controversy looming ahead, and takes evasive action. Its press release pointedly lays the blame for the cell phone ban at the FCC’s doorstep: cell phones “cannot be used for voice communications based on FCC regulations that prohibit any airborne calls using cell phones.” There’s reason for the FCC to be concerned: aside from any possible effect it might have on aircraft avionics, a single cell phone at 30,000 feet can affect ground-based cell use over an area bigger than California.

So the FAA wants you to know: if you want to use your cell phone on the plane, call the FCC, not the FAA. (Its notice conveniently fails to mention the FAA’s own ongoing inquiry into possible use of cell phones on planes.)

We are in no hurry to see that particular issue resolved. Not until the Cone of Silence actually works – and becomes mandatory on all aircraft.