Take heed, Alec Baldwin and other Words With Friends fans, the Federal Aviation Administration is drafting new rules about when passengers can use cell phones and other electronic devices on planes. For a long time the rules have generally been to turn them off when the plane is taking off and landing; most airlines prohibit cell phone use entirely during flight — hence the “airplane mode” on your phone.
Officials who are familiar with the process of updating FAA regulations told The New York Times that most of the cell phone restrictions will probably be relaxed. So passengers should be able to listen to podcasts, read their e-readers, use Wi-Fi and even send text messages from their cell phones during take off and landing.
Ostensibly the reason for the ban on electronic devices during take off and landing is to prevent interference with the plane’s navigation and communications systems. While there’s no evidence that electronic devices have caused major problems, in some cases the radio frequency emissions from phones actually exceed the limits for interference mandated by the FAA. FAA rules differ from those from the Federal Communications Commission, which sets standards for phones and other electronics.
That has meant that even though there’s no “smoking gun” evidence of a problem, it can’t be ruled out, either. One particular area of concern is GPS systems — one incident report noted a 30-degree error in the navigation systems heading when a passenger turned on a portable DVD player. But it’s also worth noting that the studies were mostly conducted nearly a decade ago, and the average cell phone actually sends out a less-powerful signal now.
There are real safety concerns, but they have more to do with a plane suddenly braking during landing and a cell phone or laptop flying through the air.
The other issue is social, rather than technological. While some want to keep connected all the time, there are passengers who appreciate that a flight — at least for a while — is a cell-phone-chatter-free space. And it’s worth remembering that the ban on electronic devices isn’t new. Back in the 1950s and 1960s using portable FM radios was banned because they interfered with communications. The change is not only the devices we carry, but how we use them and what we expect.
Harmonizing the rules and taking into account the way technology has moved will take some doing. Part of the process will be for airlines to certify that the planes can handle interference. But change is on the way; get ready for boarding.