FAA reconsiders policy on personal electronic devices
Kenneth Wyatt- August 28, 2012The rules may eventually loosen for in-flight use of smart phones and tablet computers. The FAA is soliciting public comment.
Figure 1 - Typical personal electronic devices (PEDs). The camera includes a GPS receiver, as does the GPS navigator. The mobile phone and tablet computer include PCS phone, GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity.
In a press release yesterday, August 27, 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced the following: "Given the widespread consumer use of portable electronic devices (PEDs), the Federal Aviation Administration has announced plans for an industry working group to study the current PED policies and procedures aircraft operators use to determine when these devices can be used safely in flight."
Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, said in a statement yesterday, "Safety is our highest priority, and we must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight."
They are also soliciting comments from the public in the following areas:
• Operational, safety and security challenges associated with expanding PED use.
• Data sharing between aircraft operators and manufacturers to facilitate authorization of PED use.
• Necessity of new certification regulations requiring new aircraft designs to tolerate PED emissions.
• Information-sharing for manufacturers who already have proven PED and aircraft system compatibility.
• Development of consumer electronics industry standards for aircraft-friendly PEDs, or aircraft-compatible modes of operation.
• Required publication of aircraft operators' PED policies.
• Restriction of PED use during takeoff and approach.
• Development of standards for systems that actively detect potentially hazardous PED emissions.
• Technical challenges associated with further PED usage, and support from PED manufacturers to aircraft operators.
Once the docket is published in the Federal Register - probably later this week - you'll have 60 days to submit your comments.
Here's how to do it:
• Email: PEDcomment@faa.gov
• Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov
• Mail: Send comments to Docket Operations, M-30; U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 1200 New Jersey Ave., SE, Room W12-140, West Building Ground Floor, Washington, DC 20590-0001
• Fax: (202) 493-2251
The last time the FAA studied in-flight PED usage was in 2006 and the emphasis was on the developing smart phone and Wi-Fi technologies that were becoming increasingly common on portable electronics. Partly as a result of that, aircraft operators allowed the usage of these newer phones and tablets so long as they could be placed in "airplane mode".
During the period from 2003 to 2006, the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) looked at the issue of electromagnetic interference from intentionally transmitting PEDs, such as cell phones and Wi-Fi built into laptops and concluded there was insufficient information to support a wholesale change in the polices that restrict PEDs. However, they did publish detailed procedures for assessing the risk of interference, as well as guidelines for certification of PEDs.
In recent years, the airline industry has also responded to passenger's requests for in-flight internet access and have started to install Wi-Fi systems aboard aircraft. For each model of aircraft, a manufacturer must get FAA certification and operational approval. The approvals require demonstrating the Wi-Fi systems do not affect the flight controls or safety of the aircraft.
For more information, see the Advisory Circular, FAA guidance for in-flight PED use.
One thing the FAA is NOT considering is in-flight usage of mobile phones in flight. The aircraft operators are also wary of this, due to passenger pressure against having to listen to incessant chatting by their seat mates.
One other driver for this policy change is the increasing usage of Apple's iPads as "electronic flight bags" (EFBs). These devices are used to replace many pounds of airline charts and operating manuals required by the pilots during flight operations. Obviously, they are being used during takeoffs and landings, so it's natural for passengers to ask "why not me, too?" And who has not forgotten to turn off their phone or place it in airplane mode during flights? Yet the flight still got you to your destination safely.
On the other hand, there have been numerous carefully documented events where PEDs did cause aircraft to stray off course or otherwise be affected adversely. For example, NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) collects, analyzes and responds to voluntarily submitted aviation safety incident reports in order to lessen the likelihood of aviation accidents. They issued a report in 2001 summarizing the incidents from 1986 through 1999. In the vast majority of cases, PED usage affected the navigational systems (approximately 75%). The other systems affected included things like communications, autopilot, yaw dampers, engine fuel controllers, speed brakes and auto throttles. In every case, the systems checked out OK once on the ground.
NASA also released a very interesting study of PED emissions and the affect on aircraft systems about 2006, entitled, "Electromagnetic Interference to Flight Navigation and Communication Systems: New Strategies in the Age of Wireless." This report summarizes a vast collection of experiments on aircraft systems by an assortment of portable electronics, including FRS and GPRS transmitters, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth used on laptop computers and some of the mobile phones of the day, including the early smart phones.
Here is a rather typical anecdotal report from their database, which includes the 50 most relevant records:
Synopsis: CRJ200 First Officer reports compass system malfunctions during initial climb. When passengers are asked to verify that all electronic devices are turned off the compass system returns to normal.
Narrative (excerpt, paraphrased): After failing to achieve a match between the directional heading indicator and magnetic compass shortly after takeoff, the pilot decides to fly manually, but ends up four miles off course near their destination. During the course of this flight, the flight attendant checked each passenger's phone and found an iPhone on standby in row 9. She showed the passenger how to set it to airplane mode and the compass problem cleared up.
I was also very surprised at the number of documented battery incidents - many of these causing fire and/or smoke, necessitating immediate safety procedures, including - in some cases - emergency landings. But that's a topic for some other blogger.
One thing I'd love to see is the exemption of noise-canceling headphones during all phases of flight. I was discussing this very thing recently with an EMC engineer from Bose Corporation, who verified the design of their headphones was completely analog with no emissions whatsoever. Yet, anything with a power light showing is "verboten", according to most aircraft operator policies.
So, what do you think about this potential policy change? Feel free to also add your comments below!