FAA 'exploring' use of devices like iPad during flights

No timeline or meetings with industry are set, however

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may take another look at limits on personal electronic devices (PEDs) like the new iPad on flights.

An FAA spokeswoman today told the New York Times that the FAA would take a "fresh look" at the use of PEDs on planes, excluding cell phones and smartphones. She pointed to the arrival of a number of new devices in recent years as one reason for a new approach to the issue.

In a statement to Computerworld, the FAA was more subdued saying only that it was "exploring ways to bring together all of the key stakeholders" involved. The agency didn't commit to any timeline or an actual meeting of the parties.

"As with any regulation, safety is always our top priority, and no changes will be made until we are certain they will not impact safety and security," the FAA statement said. "For some time, the FAA's rules have permitted an airline to allow passenger use of PEDs (Personal Electronic Devices) if the airline demonstrates the devices will not interfere with aircraft avionics.

"The FAA is exploring ways to bring together all of the keystakeholders involved, but, ultimately, testing is the responsibility of each airline. We recognize that this is an area of consumer interest, and our goal is to bring together these key stakeholders to help facilitate a discussion as we have in the past."

Most Americans are familiar with federal regulations that require them to turn off all electronics during a plane's taxi, take-off or landing and that forbid cell phone use throughout an entire flight. Analysts widely agree that the rules are overly restrictive and many airlines around the globe permit such uses, including voice calls during flights.

For example, Geneva-based OnAir supports 25 airlines such as AirFrance and British Airways with in-flight GSM voice service and Wi-Fi, with the in-flight voice calls billed to the user's carrier based on international roaming rates.

As its statement notes, the FAA does currently allow airlines to request use of electronic devices by their passengers after the airlines have proven the devices won't interfere with a plane's electronics and guidance technology. But that hasn't happened because the proof is difficult and expensive to provide with so many devices and varieties of aircraft on the market, according to the airlines and airline industry analysts.

Both the FAA and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have banned in-flight use of devices, last reviewing the rules in 2004-2006. The testing was inconclusive, and both agencies kept their bans in place. The FCC didn't respond to a request to comment on Monday about whether it intends to re-examine its rules.

While the FAA said it will take a new look at the regulations, it hasn't promised to make any changes. The FAA will bring together manufacturers of devices and airplanes, as well as pilots, flight attendants and passengers to determine a course of action.

Some industry analysts believe the airlines have been hoping to loosen restrictions so that Wi-Fi now installed in some planes can be used, perhaps, for voice or video calling from devices, perhaps in a special section of the plane to prevent bothering sleeping passengers.

The FAA still refers to a 2009 fact sheet explaining the reasons for its ban. That fact sheet says there are "still unknowns about the radio signals" given off by portable electronic devices and cell phones that can affect aircraft communicatons. It also notes that the FCC ban is in place because of potential interference with ground networks, adding: "Even if the FCC ever rescinds its ban, FAA regulations would still apply.... The air carrier would have to show that the use of a particular model phone won't interfere with the navigation and communications systems of the particular type of aircraft on which it will be used."

Some analysts suggested that the FAA could make the testing requirements simpler for the airlines by reducing the number of devices or planes that must be evaluated.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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