US may ease up on in-flight use of electronics

The U.S. aviation agency is seeking comment on in-flight use of phones, tablets, laptops and other devices

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is taking a new look at the use of portable electronics on airplanes, seeking public comments starting this week and forming a government-industry group to study when smartphones, tablets and other devices can be used safely.

In the U.S., airlines have to determine that interference from portable electronic devices (PEDs) doesn't put flight safety at risk before they authorize passengers to use them. As a result, passengers are asked to power down their laptops, tablets, phones, e-readers, game consoles and other devices during take-off and landing and while the plane is reaching its cruising altitude. The rules are designed to prevent interference with navigation and other systems from the devices themselves, whether communicating with a network or not. The use of cellular networks is banned throughout flights.

The group that the FAA is forming will include representatives from airlines, mobile companies and aviation manufacturers, as well as pilot, flight attendant and passenger groups, the FAA said on Monday. It's scheduled to be formed in the fall of this year and meet for six months. The group will look at the testing methods airlines use to determine safety and consider setting technology standards for in-flight device use, then report back to the FAA.

One thing the study group won't look at is allowing voice calls on cellphones during flight, the FAA said. Airlines once commonly offered pay phones in seatbacks, but since passengers started getting online in the air using Wi-Fi, the carriers have taken a firm line against calls using VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol).

Before the new group meets, the FAA will seek opinions from the public starting on Tuesday, when a Request for Comments is due to be published in the Federal Register. Comments will be accepted for 60 days. The agency is looking for comments on issues including the challenges of expanding electronic device use, possible regulations for certifying aircraft to tolerate device emissions, and electronics industry standards for aircraft-friendly devices.

The FAA even suggested the problem has already been solved. One topic for comment is "Information-sharing for manufacturers who already have proven [portable electronic device] and aircraft system compatibility to provide information to operators for new and modified aircraft."

However, another area where it wants input is "restriction of PED use during takeoff, approach, landing and abnormal conditions to avoid distracting passengers during safety briefings and prevent possible injury to passengers."

CTIA, the main industry group for U.S. mobile operators, welcomed the FAA's move in a post on its official blog.

"The use of portable electronic devices while on a flight -- the whole flight -- should absolutely be allowed," wrote Jot Carpenter, a CTIA executive in charge of outreach to lawmakers and federal agencies. He said studies have shown there is no interference to aviation systems from mobile devices and cited a 2006 decision by Dubai-based airline Emirates to allow cellphone use in flight. Whether cellular voice calls are allowed during flight should be determined by the market, he said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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