Should Mobile Device Use Expand on Planes? FCC Tells FAA It’s Time (Because It Is)

The scientific evidence for disabling electronics on planes during takeoff and landing is scant to nonexistent, so why are we still being asked to disable our laptops, tablets and cellphones?

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As we used to say in my past life working for a railroad, “safety first.” But as you’ve probably heard — increasingly in recent years — scientific evidence supporting the way we currently regulate electronic devices on planes, whether at launch or in the air, is scant to nonexistent.

So why are we still hearing the cabin crew on the comms just before launch, after the cabin doors close, asking us to disable our laptops, tablets and cellphones?

Because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules prohibit use of electronic devices like cellphones and other wireless devices on “airborne aircraft,” claiming these devices could potentially interfere with wireless networks “on the ground.” The FCC actually began considerations to lift the ban in late 2004, but ended the process in 2007, after concluding the technical info provided by “interested parties” (read: device manufacturers) wasn’t good enough to make a determination.

But behold: Last Thursday, reports The Hill, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski issued a letter to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) acting chairman Michael Huerta calling on the FAA to “enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices” during flights.

Huzzah? Perhaps.

To be fair, the FAA already allows portable electronic devices to be used for the lion’s share of flight time, including enabling Wi-Fi after the plane’s in the air (all the commercial flights I’ve been on since 2010 have included inflight Wi-Fi service), thus it’s clear Genachowski’s talking about the periods during which these devices are currently restricted: takeoff or landing. This is kind of a big deal, I’m sure you’ll agree, because those periods can range from all of a couple dozen minutes to hours, depending.

(MORE: JetBlue to Launch Free Wi-Fi on Planes in Early 2013)

Nowadays it works something like this (for all you who don’t fly): After the cabin doors close, as the pilots are spooling up the engines preparing to pull away from the walkway, a flight attendant takes to the cabin speaker system and reminds us it’s time to put our battery-powered toys away. Off go the smartphones, tablets, portable music players and handheld game devices, out come the magazines, newspapers and nap-time pillows. It’s like watching the future happen in reverse.

(I usually avoid buying print magazines, but I’m also a nervous please-distract-me flier, so I’m usually grabbing a copy of something to leaf through during takeoff and landing for this very reason.)

As I’m sure many of you can personally attest, not everyone abides by the rules, and I’m not just talking about the ones knowingly flouting it. I’ve never intentionally powered up my cellphone at takeoff or landing, but I’ve definitely forgotten to power it down, tucked in a jacket pocket or an under-the-seat backpack.

In any case, we can shoot an object the size of a Humvee across 354 million miles of vacuum at close to 48,000 miles per hour, aimed at a 20 kilometer landing site on a moving target and actually hit it. Why can’t we figure out something as comparably straightforward as whether electronic devices do or don’t interfere in a prohibitive way with a plane’s avionics?

Part of the trouble is that neither the U.S. government nor airplane manufacturers have been willing to spend the money necessary to perform conclusive tests. That may finally be changing: In August, the FAA said it would review its policies on electronic device usage, and last week’s FCC letter references the FAA review, expressing support for the initiative.

“This review comes at a time of tremendous innovation, as mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives,” writes the FCC’s Genachowski. “They empower people to stay informed and connected with friends and family, and they enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness.”

It’s about time, isn’t it? Time to get our hands around this issue instead of pushing it back indefinitely? Time to perform whatever (exhaustive) tests remain so we can apply informed, science-grounded policy? Time to add up all the time some of us lose in productivity while idling at the gate because of mechanical troubles, taxiing on the runway, or in a pre-landing holding pattern for weather-related or runway-availability reasons?

We’re terrified of so many things on (and about) planes, some of them perfectly reasonable, say guns, knives, plastic explosives and crashing (snakes, too, apparently), but others less so — among them, powered-on consumer electronics.

If it turns out some types of electronic devices in certain circumstances pose a real risk, so be it, but it’s time we made that determination, factually, once and for all. Kudos to the FCC for adding a little momentum to the ball.

A side note: I’ve heard people worry about the potential for small objects to go winging around the cabin during takeoff and landing, citing that as a reason to maintain the electronic device usage ban (the idea being that if it’s not in use, it’s probably stowed). That’s an issue worth considering, sure, so consider this: It doesn’t apply uniquely to electronics. Most hardcover books weigh as much or more than the average smartphone, tablet or e-reader. No one asks you to put your book away, and besides, there’s probably more chance of these objects being a problem during extreme turbulence, which can occur at any point during a flight.

MORE: iPads in the Cockpit, But Not in the Cabin? The In-Flight Gadget Controversy Continues