Portable Electronics on Airplanes

Friday, June 21, 2013

Anyone who has flown on a commercial airliner has heard the flight attendant tell passengers to turn off all cell phones, computers, e-readers and other devices once the cabin door is closed, and leave them off until the plane reaches 10,000 feet.

The FAA recognizes this is an area of intense consumer interest, so the agency has brought all the important stakeholders together to facilitate a discussion on this issue. A government-industry group is now studying the current policies and procedures aircraft operators use to determine when these portable electronic devices (PEDs) can be used safely during flight. The goal is to help air carriers and operators decide if they can allow more widespread use of electronic devices in today’s aircraft.

The group, called an Aviation Rulemaking Committee, is examining a variety of issues including the testing methods aircraft operators use to determine which new technologies passengers can safely use aboard aircraft and when they can use them. They also are looking at technological standards associated with the use of PEDs during any phase of flight. The group began its business in January and will hold periodic meetings through September, after which it will give its report and recommendations to the FAA.

The group is not considering the use of cell phones for voice communications during flight because Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations prohibit any airborne calls using cell phones.

What’s Behind the Current Policy?
The technology for portable electronic devices (PEDs) has been around for many years and is still used in today’s electronics, but there are many uncertainties about the radio signals the devices give off.  Even PEDs that do not intentionally transmit signals can emit unintentional radio energy. This energy may affect aircraft safety because the signals can occur at the same frequencies used by the plane’s highly sensitive communications, navigation, flight control and electronic equipment.

Current FAA guidance says passengers should turn off tablets, e-readers and any other PEDs with an “OFF” switch during takeoff and landing. This is to prevent potential interference that could pose a safety hazard as the cockpit crew focuses on arrival and departure duties. On a given flight, there could be hundreds of different PEDs in many different states of function or repair giving off spurious signals, so without proper testing there is no assurance they will not produce interference during these critical phases of flight.

The FAA permits an airline to demonstrate a particular device does not interfere with a plane’s electronic systems and provides oversight of the carrier’s process for determining when PEDs can be used. 

Tablets as Electronic Flight Bags for Pilots
Today, many air carriers are asking to use tablet computers in the cockpit as part of an “electronic flight bag,” in lieu of carrying bulky paper navigation charts and manuals. As part of its  rigorous approval process, the FAA requires an air carrier to satisfactorily perform electromagnetic interference tests on the specific types of aircraft in which the device will be used. These tests must be performed with the tablet configured as it will be used in flight by the pilot. Typically, the carrier does these demonstrations prior to an FAA-approved six-month evaluation period.

If a carrier successfully completes the evaluation period and the FAA inspector overseeing its operations gives a final authorization, the carrier’s pilots no longer have to carry paper copies of documents that are loaded onto and accessible from the tablet.

The FAA instructs air carriers and pilots that using tablets for activities not related to flight duties is a safety risk, and regulations prohibit such distractions.

FAA regulations already permit the airlines to demonstrate that a tablet computer will not create interference in the cabin as well as the cockpit. However, an airline would have to conduct extensive analysis and testing to address the differences in where the tablets are used, emissions from multiple tablets, and other considerations to demonstrate that unrestricted use would not interfere with any of the aircraft safety systems

Data-Driven Safety Decisions
From 2003 to 2006, the RTCA, an organization the FAA tasks to bring together groups of experts for studies of technical matters related to agency policies, looked at interference from intentionally transmitting PEDs such as cell phones and WiFi transmitters in laptops.The final RTCA report concluded there is insufficient information to support a change in the current policy that defines the operator’s requirements for allowing use of PEDs.

Although e-readers and tablet computers were not available for consumer use during the RTCA research, the basic technologies in these devices are not significantly different from those the group studied.  For example, e-readers typically include an embedded mobile phone and a WiFi transmitter. Overall, the work done by the RTCA still applies to today’s PEDs.

Cell Phones
Cell phones (and other intentional transmitters) differ from most PEDs in that they are designed to send out signals strong enough to be received at great distances. Since 1991, the FCC has banned the inflight use of cell phones because of potential interference with ground networks. FAA guidance does allow cell phone calls once the plane has landed and is taxiing to the gate.

Today, airlines usually allow passengers to use newer-model phones in "airplane" mode above 10,000 feet. This mode disables the transmitter so the phone can’t make calls, but lets users play games, check an address or look at the phone’s calendar.

Safety is always the FAA’s top priority. The agency already supports development of new PED-tolerant aircraft designs and has published criteria for aircraft manufacturers to establish such tolerance. The FAA will use a data-driven process to make sure any changes to existing PED policy are supported by data, and ensure there are no impacts to safety and security. Ultimately, testing is the responsibility of each airline.