Mobile Device Use on Airplanes Cleared for Takeoff?

By Jessica Binns, Contributing Editor — December 11, 2012

If all you want for the holidays is greater use of your mobile devices when jetting around the country, your wish may be on its way to coming true.

In a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration last week, Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski pushed for airlines to allow passengers to use tablets, e-readers and other electronic mobile devices (but not cell phones) during takeoff. As any business traveler knows, passengers are instructed to both turn off and stow their devices before the airplane leaves the runway.

These devices "enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness," Genachowski wrote.

According to the FAA's 2009 fact sheet on cell phones, Wi-Fi and portable electronic devices on airplanes, "there are still unknowns about the radio signals that portable electronic devices (PEDs) and cell phones give off. These signals, especially in large quantities and emitted over a long time, may unintentionally affect aircraft communications, navigation, flight control and electronic equipment."

The administration says that use of mobile devices at altitudes lower than 10,000 feet may potentially cause interference with ground control systems and become a safety hazard as the flight crew concentrates on duties for departure and arrival.

But the "safety issue" argument rings hollow for some. In a blog post, Jot Carpenter, CTIA's government affairs liaison, wrote, "The bottom line is that this has always struck me as an antiquated rule that no one could explain, especially since there are several airlines that offer tablets for their pilots. In the Air Force, our fighter pilots may soon be wearing tablets to provide them with real-time information!"

Some airlines do offer Internet connectivity via onboard Wi-Fi, usually for a fee.

The FAA launched a study over the summer reexamining policies around the use of cell phones on civilian aircraft. The agency last considered lifting the no-cell-phone-use ban in 2004, but cited insufficient data on the relationship between mobile phones and interference at the time.

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