Flying iPads

The New York Times reported yesterday that the FAA is getting closer to allowing people to use electronic devices on planes during takeoff and landing. From the Bits blog:

According to people who work with an industry working group that the Federal Aviation Administration set up last year to study the use of portable electronics on planes, the agency hopes to announce by the end of this year that it will relax the rules for reading devices during takeoff and landing. The change would not include cellphones.

Marco Arment is concerned about the term “reading devices.”

Is the Kindle Fire a reading device since it’s named “Kindle”, even though it can do a lot more? Are iPads reading devices? How about an iPad Mini with an LTE radio? I assume iPhones would be prohibited as “cellphones”, but what about iPod Touches?

I agree that “reading devices” is a silly and probably self-defeating standard to use, but I think Marco may be taking the Times article a little too literally. I doubt that the FAA would use the term “reading devices” in an actual regulation, because they’d have to device on a definition for a reading device. As Marco points out, that’s a tall order. If the FAA released a statement talking about reading devices, I’d be very worried. But in this case, I think we’re looking at a case of a reporter being a little loose with his words.

The most likely scenario is that the FAA will use similar rules during takeoff and landing as it does during the cruise section of the flight. That is, radios that send and receive signals must be turned off. During flight, WiFi is OK; during takeoff and landing, it’s not. I imagine the rules will look something like this:

  • All electronic devices must be set so they do not send or receive a signal.
  • After takeoff and before landing, you may use WiFi but not cellular communications.

The second rule is basically the status quo. The updated version simply replaces “please turn off all electronic devices” with “please set all electronic devices so that they do not send or receive a signal.” (I wouldn’t be surprised to see an additional rule banning headphone use during takeoff and landing, so that you can hear crew announcements. Right now you can use headphones for TV on airlines like JetBlue, but crew announcements preempt the TV audio.)

Will some people get it wrong and leave radios enabled on their phones? Sure, but some people forget (or “forget”) to turn off electronics now, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Will flight crews have trouble determining whether people are really complying with the rules? Yes, but again, that’s pretty much the status quo. Will different devices do different things in “airplane mode,” leading to inadvertent violations of the rules? Probably, but having a standard set of rules about use of electronics use during flight will gradually help standardize airplane modes.