FAA Expected to Finally Say ‘Gate-to-Gate’ Wi-Fi on Planes Is Safe

Gate-to-gate wireless device use could be around the corner.

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Late last year, the FCC told the FAA to loosen up about mobile device use during flights, and as my colleague Jared Newman noted last week, the FAA’s been expected to do just that.

Call this the almost-official unclenching, then: a special 28-member FAA advisory group created to examine the question of Wi-Fi’s safety during various stages of commercial flight is expected to say passengers can safely use wireless consumer electronics over Wi-Fi for the entirety of flights on most U.S. planes, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Insert animation of the Snoopy happy-dance here.

We’re still waiting for the official report to drop, but the WSJ — which says it spoke to one of the committee’s leaders — notes the report contains “more than two dozen recommendations” and that it’ll be notably more relaxed about wireless device use during flights than previously thought.

According to the WSJ:

The panel determined that no matter what applications the devices are running or what wireless-transmission mode they are in, “the vast majority” of aircraft “are going to be just fine” from a safety standpoint, according to a senior Amazon.com Inc. official who headed the group’s technical subcommittee.

Let that sink in. The days of having to turn your handheld game devices and phones, laptops and tablets off during departure or landing may well soon be over: the advisory panel will apparently say such devices should be considered safe for “gate to gate use.”

The only catch: It sounds like cellular communications (voice or data) still pose a risk, though only of interfering with air-to-ground communications and not the plane’s avionics. The report is expected to recommend letting existing restrictions on such communications stand while the FAA and FCC reexamine them.

What this means for you: The FAA as a whole still has to adopt its advisory committee’s recommendations for gate-to-gate wireless device use to be sanctioned, and then you’d still have to pay to use an in-flight Wi-Fi service, since cellular communication would remain verboten.

The trick, of course, would be ensuring passengers comply with such niceties, but then that’s been the challenge airlines have faced for years: ensuring cellular-capable devices are used with the cellular connection disabled. (If you’ve flown much over the past few decades, you know plenty of passengers flout this rule.)

Still paranoid? You’re in sympathetic company — I’m a nervous flier myself. Sometimes, sitting in my seat, tuned into every subtle vibration, I’ll imagine this or that sound is the plane getting ready to open up like a piñata. Never mind the hard-nosed science, we’re a superstitious species by nature. Stick us tens of thousand of feet in the air, jetting along at hundreds of miles an hour and with tiny radiation-spitting devices we’ve been told just might goof up our sky-coach’s avionics and it’s like that Stephen King line: give the brain a spoon and a hand to hold it and it’ll eat itself.

Rest assured, the FAA report is expected to ameliorate such concerns, noting that today’s planes are insulated well enough from electromagnetic interference to make them sufficiently resilient.