Preparing for takeoff – no need to turn off your electronics

Gary Shapiro President and CEO, Consumer Technology Association
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From mobile apps for flight check-in to finding friends and family at baggage claim, and at almost every point in between, portable electronics make air travel easier and keep passengers connected, entertained and productive.

In early October, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) advisory committee recommended the agency expand the use of devices such as smartphones, tablets and e-readers in “airplane mode” during flights. In their report, the committee developed recommendations supporting expanded use of devices while maintaining the highest safety standards.

It is long overdue for the FAA and airlines to revisit archaic restrictions on in-flight devices and take steps to allow passengers to use their digital devices from gate to gate. The current rules governing the use of electronics during flights date back to the 1960s with electric shavers, when the FAA put the onus on airlines to determine which devices would interfere with navigation signals.

A generation later, portable music players, early laptop computers and handheld video games complicated airline policies for use of electronics. Following the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, in which a plastic explosive was hidden inside a radio cassette player, there were calls to ban all portable electronics on airplanes, whether carried aboard or checked in. Fortunately, such proposals were rejected.

Today, airlines restrict the use of portable electronics below 10,000 feet. Given the rapid advance of technology and no evidence of threats to airline safety from most portable electronics, an altitude-based ban makes no sense.

Last year, the FAA chartered a group of stakeholders including a representative from my organization, the Consumer Electronics Association, as well as more than two dozen private sector and government experts representing airplane manufacturers, airlines, passengers, device makers, flight attendants, pilots and the in-flight entertainment industry. Together, they examined rules that frustrate passengers who are increasingly looking for diversions while flying.

Under the rules now in place, passengers must power off all devices during takeoff and landing. This includes e-readers, tablets and laptops, even when they’re in airplane mode – meaning they’re not transmitting signals.

Some stakeholders have expressed concern that some devices transmit a strong enough signal to interfere with planes’ navigation equipment, especially if many devices are being used at once. There is no evidence to support this fear, though. In fact, Delta Air Lines analyzed 2.3 million flights after more than two dozen reports of electronics interfering with navigation equipment since 2010. They could not find even one incidence of interference.

The FAA advisory committee made more than two dozen recommendations that would result in passengers having more leeway to enjoy their devices. If the FAA pursues these recommendations, passengers would be allowed to use handheld, lightweight devices during taxi, takeoff and landing for most airplanes in most cases. This “gate to gate” allowance means that we could continue to use our devices for reading books, working on documents, and watching and listening to downloaded movies and music while in “airplane mode.”

Email, texting and calling using a device’s cellular connection, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), would still be prohibited. Ultimately, the FAA committee’s recommendations would allow passengers to continue their work or leisure activities without annoying interruptions for takeoff and landing while at the same time maintaining the highest safety standards. Passengers are bringing their devices with them when they travel, and they expect to be able to use them.

report released earlier this year, Portable Electronics on Aircraft, revealed that 99 percent of passengers who travel with portable electronics carry them onboard the plane. Sixty-nine percent used their devices during the flight, and 30 percent accidentally left their device on when they stowed it away – with no apparent disruption to flight signals. Smartphones, laptops, tablets, MP3 players and e-readers topped the list of the most frequently used devices in flight. Passengers deserve clear and consistent guidance from airlines and regulators on when and how they can safely use them.

The advisory committee’s recommendations are an important step toward bringing the current guidelines in line with 21st-century technology. Passengers should not be subjected to 1960s rules when both our devices and airplane technology have advanced. The FAA should adopt the committee’s recommendations and ease up on restrictions.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.