Frequent fliers, rejoice! The Federal Aviation Administration might, at some unspecified point in the future, possibly do something about your inability to use tablets and other gadgets during takeoff and landing.
I’m being intentionally silly, of course. While a couple of headlines today from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times make it seem like a done deal, both stories explain that nothing’s set in stone, and that it’s still going to be a while before flight attendants stop telling us to turn off all portable electronic devices.
The key passage from the Journal:
The FAA likely won’t make a formal decision on the matter until after it receives the final version of the advisory panel’s study, now delayed two months to the end of September.
And from the Times:
[One] person, who has seen a draft of the report, said there are still concerns about passengers’ electronics during landing, where the use of flight instruments is paramount, indicating the recommendation could still change.
The advisory group was supposed to deliver its findings by July 31, but has asked for an extension until September, the person said.
So, what are these stories actually reporting? Last year, the FAA set up an advisory group to figure this whole gadgets-on-airplanes thing out. The group–made up of airlines, electronics makers, pilots, flight attendants and avionics makers–has now prepared a draft of its recommendations, and the Journal has actually seen it.
Unsurprisingly, the draft recommends that fliers be able to use their phones, tablets, e-readers and laptops from gate to gate, as long as they’re not actually making phone calls. There could be exceptions for planes with limited built-in protections from electrical interference, and some planes may only allow flight attendants to use electronics during takeoff and landing. But for planes with adequate protections from interference, we may hear flight attendants say, “This aircraft tolerates emissions from electrical devices for all phases of flight.” The draft urges the FAA to require all new planes to have these emissions protections starting in 2015.
Still, as the Times points out, those recommendations could change between now and September, when a final version of the report is due. Although both stories say the FAA is “set” to relax its rules, the agency itself isn’t saying that. No decisions have been made one way or another.
And just to clear up a few things that always seem to come up in these discussions: No, the existing rules are not in place to prevent you from being distracted, or to stop heavy objects from flying out of your hands. If they were, sleeping and hardcover books would be forbidden as well. This issue is all about interference caused by electronics, or the lack thereof. Studies have shown many passengers–nearly 30 percent, according to one report– say they “accidentally” leave their devices on from gate-to-gate, so it’s unlikely that the rules are preventing catastrophe.
Meanwhile, the FAA is facing pressure to change its ways, not only from consumers, but from the Federal Communications Commission and Congress. The rules will change eventually; it’s just a matter of when. We still don’t know the answer, but it definitely won’t be earlier than September.