FAA to reconsider tablet restrictions on flights by end of year

If you fly anywhere in the world, as it turns out, you get to hear the flight attendants instruct all passengers to power off all electronic devices with an on-off button. On my way from Rome to Amsterdam, I flew KLM instead of Delta, but it made no difference in the use of tablets or computers. However, according to both the New York Times and CBS, the FAA may soon revise those rules in the US, thanks to a wealth of scientific evidence that shows no interference with electronic instruments on airplanes:

What changed things was that last year the FAA allowed some airline pilots to use their iPads in the cockpit. That started the ball rolling towards the loosening of certain restrictions.

Smartphones are not included in the consideration for looser restrictions because their use is governed by the FCC, and many hope that won’t change, Greenberg reports.

The FAA is only going to deal with readers and tablets and maybe some other electronic devices at altitudes of below than 10,000 feet.

The argument has been that you couldn’t use them below 10,000 feet, but Greenberg argues that those lower altitudes are actually the exact time they should be allowed: below below 10,000 feet, the pilot is in positive control of the airplane. If something were to happen, the pilot could actually override controls. At 35,000 feet, when you’re traveling nearly 600 miles an hour, any small change to the flaps or something similar could destroy the plane.

So there hasn’t been a lot of logic in the current FAA rules, and it’s finally coming home to roost, Greenberg says.

Why not cell phones? As CBS and the NYT note, that’s governed by the FCC, but they don’t explain the real problem. Cell phones work by transferring phones from one cell to another as people are in motion. If entire planefuls of people operated their cellphones while flying at any level, it would create a headache for cell operations, not for the airplanes themselves. The FAA hasn’t issued a rule on their use because of the redundancy it would create, and the FCC isn’t going to back away from that stand. Those problems are real, and the rule serves an actual purpose.

The same cannot be said of the restrictions on tablets and other electronic equipment, at least when in “airplane mode,” which turns off any cell-system connections. As CBS points out, the rule not only flies in the face of science and evidence, it also makes no sense. If tablets and computers interfered with airplane instruments, the last place you’d want them in operation is at 35,000 feet.

Like so many other government regulations, their continued existence in this case is only justified by their previous existence. We often talk about the benefits of zero-based budgeting, which forces organizations to budget without using any baselines from previous fiscal years and to justify every dollar spent. Maybe we should be forcing some zero-based regulatory cycles as well.

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