Monday, June 24, 2013

Common Sense Takes Off

One of the many on-going frustrations for regular air travelers have been the rules regulating the use of electronic devices. The rules often seem capricious and arbitrary especially when there is little evidence that electronic devices have any impact on aircraft flight systems. Are you really asking me to believe that turning on my Kindle while we taxi to takeoff is going to create a safety risk? This has led to widespread disregard for the rules among passengers and forced airline personnel into the uncomfortable position of being enforcers of the unpopular regulations.

A story in today’s WSJ brings welcome news that rays of common sense are finally breaking the clouds on this matter. Wi-Fi at Takeoff? Expect Delays:

The draft report prepared for the Federal Aviation Administration essentially concludes that easing the current ban on electronics under 10,000 feet is overdue—from a scientific as well as a common-sense standpoint.

But it envisions what is likely to be months of stepped-up testing to identify individual aircraft models most vulnerable to potential electromagnetic interference from personal electronics in the cabin. The report doesn't sketch out a specific timeline for easing current in-flight restrictions affecting devices.

Once the FAA opts for new rules, according to the report, the move will require additional FAA safety assessments, crew training, broad public education efforts and closer coordination with foreign regulators, so that U.S. rules basically track those in other countries.

The report's conclusions could change before it is due to be delivered to the agency in September, and the FAA may opt to amend or slow down implementation of recommended changes. But at this point, the panel appears to agree that in most cases, safety risks are "small due to the number of redundant systems" found on most planes.

That view is shared widely by experts outside the panel. "The systems we have out there are very safe" in preventing interference with critical aircraft navigation or flight-control systems, according to Kent Statler, who heads up the commercial business for Rockwell Collins Inc. "I have little concern" about use of Wi-Fi devices in the cockpit or the cabin as long as aircraft operating systems "are designed correctly," Mr. Statler said. "It's the most difficult test to get through," he added, before a new jet is certified to carry passengers.

The FAA, which previously indicated it was eagerly awaiting the final recommendations and would act on them, last week said "we will wait for the group to finish its work before we determine next steps."

Taken together, the draft spells out a phased approach to easing the current ban against using portable electronics during taxi, takeoff and landing. Without specifying which devices should be permitted or precisely when, the document repeatedly urges expanded uses of onboard gadgets to bring FAA rules into sync with the latest scientific data and evolving behavior of travelers.

The draft doesn't include recommendations affecting the U.S. ban on cellphones, because the FAA didn't ask the advisory panel for suggestions in that area.

Given that these are federal government regulations, we can expect that the process of easing them will not be a quick one. But the fact that the FAA is going to address them is encouraging no matter how long it takes to see changes on the ground. We’ll take whatever we can get whenever we can get it.