Slow Steps Forward In Using “Science” to Regulate Onboard Use of Electronics

The Associated PressScott Mayerowitz writes about how a ‘delay’ actually constitutes (slow) progress in eliminating bans on passenger use of electronics below 10,000 feet.

An industry-labor advisory committee was supposed to make recommendations next month to the Federal Aviation Administration on easing the restrictions. But the agency said in a statement Friday the deadline has been extended to September because committee members asked for extra time to finish assessing whether it is safe to lift restrictions.

… “It’s good to see the FAA may be on the verge of acknowledging what the traveling public has suspected for years — that current rules are arbitrary and lack real justification,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of Congress’ more outspoken critics of the restrictions, said in a statement. She contends that unless scientific evidence can be presented to justify the restrictions, they should be lifted.

There seems to be universal disdain for the idea of letting people use their cell phones to make calls on board, though.

“I just hope they do the sensible thing and don’t allow people to talk on their cellphones during flight,” added [Edward] Pizzarello, who flies 150,000 to 200,000 miles a year. “There are plenty of people that don’t have the social skills necessary to make a phone call on a plane without annoying the people around them. Some things are better left alone.”

But since it isn’t the FCC’s rules that are under review, there’s little chance we’ll see voice calls on a plane any time soon. And voice of internet won’t emerge, either. Even though Amtrak (not usually an innovator!) manages to successfully offer both cell phone use and quiet cars, and airlines offered seatback phones for years.

And many analysts downplay the importance of liberalizing rules, as though it’s only about letting me read my e-book instead of carrying around a paperback.

Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Hudson Crossing, said airlines would only profit if the FAA also amended the rules to allow passengers to access the internet earlier — something that is not being suggested.

“Unless the FAA is considering relaxing the rules on Wi-Fi access, this is not about making money. This is about keeping the passenger entertained,” he said.

I much like Henry but he’s wrong to trivialize the issue as keeping entertained. Just like with long or unpredictable screening processes, limiting communications/electronics in the sky is about productivity and ultimately economic growth. It’s stuff that actually matters, when compounded over several years and across the economy.

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I don’t want people allowed to make calls during flight. But I am extremely skeptical that it’s actually dangerous, so I don’t think it ought to be the government’s job to stop it. I hope (almost surely in vain) that if the ban is lifted the airlines will have their own rules about airborne phone calls.

  2. @dbeach: The solution is cell phone and quiet sections, just like the old smoking sections. We know they were far from perfect, but better than nothing…for Gary is right, “[L]imiting communications/electronics in the sky is about productivity and ultimately economic growth.”

  3. If they have cell phone and quiet sections on the plane, I hope they do a better job of allocating space than Amtrak does. There’s one “quiet car” on each train (at least on the Northeastern Corridor routes), and it is always the most crowded car on the train.

  4. The fact that they used to have phones in the seatbacks doesn’t count, since the costs were so high that nobody but nobody ever used them for any length of time. And of course the quality sucked.

    Cell phones have their own problems. At lower altitudes you’re switching towers faster than they were designed for, so your calls simply may not stay up and you will cause more problems for others on those same cell towers which could be an argument for blocking them (technological solution) or banning them (legal).

    The airline could operate a pico-cell to allow the phones to pair with it rather than those on the ground. As you say though this might not be a great idea. And whether enough people would use it to make it profitable is debatable.

    Once they allow internet access of course, if its of decent speed and latency, voice over IP can be used (Skype, Facetime voice, Google Talk/Hangouts, etc etc). Even using a VPN or tunnel if they try to block you. Right now the internet is generally so poor that this won’t work too well, but at some point it’ll probably become feasible.

  5. Hopefully this will be allowed so we don’t have to hear any more stupid stories about planes being delayed or people being kicked off planes for not putting away their electronics.

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