You know the drill. Just after the boarding door is closed, the flight attendant announces that it’s time to discontinue the use of all portable electronic devices (PEDs), and ensure that they are completely turned off and stowed until after takeoff.
If you’re a seasoned airline traveler, you also know to listen for the double-chime over the PA system that lets the cabin crew and savvy passengers know that the aircraft has now climbed through 10,000 MSL. Even before the flight attendant can complete the announcement, twitchy tech-deprived souls like me are eagerly turning the toys back on.
The familiar sequence is changing because the FAA policy allows expanded use of passenger-supplied PEDs during various phases of flight.
A Brief History of PED Policy
A PED is any piece of lightweight, electrically-powered equipment. The reason for the longstanding “turn off the toys” requirement is that PEDs can emit unintentional radio energy. There are safety implications because it can occur at the same frequencies used by a plane’s communications, navigation, flight control, and electronic equipment.
Although everyone loves to blame the FAA for the heretofore more restrictive approach, the reality is that FAA regulations (14 CFR section 91.21 and 14 CFR section 121.306) already allow use of devices that demonstrably do not interfere with a plane’s electronic systems.
That requirement is fairly straightforward for GA pilots, because we have a limited number of PEDs on board and we can more easily determine whether there is PED interference with aircraft equipment.
It’s a different story for airlines. While they have always had the option to test PEDs for interference, the problem is that operators would have to devote significant resources to demonstrating which devices carried by today’s passengers are safe for use during critical phases of flight.
Streamlined Testing and Approval
In response to strong public and congressional interest in streamlining current approval processes, on January 7, 2013, the FAA established the PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). The FAA asked this ARC, comprised of diverse industry and regulatory representatives, to review PED policy and make recommendations on allowing additional PED usage without compromising safety.
On September 30, 2013, the PED ARC submitted its report. As before, testing is the responsibility of each airline. To streamline the approval process, however, the FAA has developed guidance to help operators assess the risks of potential PED-induced avionics problems for their aircraft.
After a carrier uses these methods to prove that its aircraft can safely handle PED radio emissions, the carrier determines how and when it will allow passengers broader use of PEDs. The airline must then revise manuals, checklists for crewmember training materials, carry-on baggage programs, passenger briefings, and information cards. When those steps are complete and approved by the FAA, the airline can let passengers use their devices while the plane is at the gate, during taxi to the takeoff point on the runway, and during the vast majority of landings.
There are still a few restrictions. Electronic devices must be switched to “airplane mode” and have the cellular connection disabled, in part because cell phone calls are still prohibited in accordance with Federal Communications Commission regulations. WiFi connections are allowed if the plane has an installed WiFi system. The airline must ensure that PED cords and accessories do not block avenues for emergency exit. Airlines will require passengers to properly stow heavier devices, like standard laptops, during the takeoff and landing to ensure that loose items do not injure people.
Airlines are moving quickly to implement new PED use policies and procedures, but please remember it may still take some time for full compliance. (FAA Safety Briefing – JanFeb 2014 )