FCC to FAA: Let My People Text

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Out of far-left field comes a proposal from the FCC to the FAA to relax standards on the use of cellphones, tablets and other personal electronic devices during takeoff and landing aboard airliners. In his letter to the FAA's Michael Huerta, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski basically pitched a novel argument: Banning of these devices stifles productivity. Executives can't convey their orders; salesmen can't close sales; workers can't brief their bosses on the results of their travel and so forth. Worse, carping journalists such as myself might be bored for 10 minutes waiting for the flight to climb out of computer-free airspace. Oh, the horror.

Although I like the cut of Genachowski's jib, his letter lacked one important thing: The attachment citing data from a well-designed study showing that, beyond reasonable doubt, PEDs represent no safety threat to safe airline ops. Or, failing that, a framework for how such a study might be conducted. In a previous blog, I opined as how what I'd be looking for is a rigorous examination of this issue to reveal and resolve any issues related to PED use in the takeoff and landing phases of flight. The comments in that blog revealed enough anecdotal interference reports to suggest there could be hidden issue we don't understand.

The FAA is assembling an Aviation Rulemaking Committee to do just this in the coming year. Presumably, it will then make a recommendation. If it determines that tablets and smartphones are okay, I'll be the first to cheer.

But then I had a chilling thought from the be-careful-what-you-wish for file. I wasn't really thinking about the phone part of the smartphone, but the data and app part. Because if it comes to pass that passengers are allowed unrestricted use of cellphones throughout the flight, I think we're looking at riots in the aisles. The last thing I want is to sit next to someone chattering away on the cellphone for two hours and the likelihood of finding such a seatmate I deem to be about even. Personally, I'd never consider doing this and wouldn't even make other than the shortest call from an airline seat with someone sitting nearby. It's just common courtesy. I'm confident the world is full of people not similarly inclined. Genachowski's letter seems to imply a future in which the FCC's own restrictions on airborne cellphone usage are lifted and/or phones that reliably work airborne will be commonplace.

So for now, I'd hope the airlines would retain the hang-up rule once the cabin door closes, but allow app and tablet use. Or at least e-readers. Genachowski is right about one thing: the accelerating global communication revolution lends a certain inevitably to all of this. If it doesn't happen next year or the year after, 10 years from now, getting on an airliner won't sever you from the grid any more than walking from your car to your house.

I'm not sure if that's exciting or depressing.

Comments (35)

I always thought that the cell phone ban on aircraft was a FCC rule, not a FAA rule. When cell phones first came out they were for ground use only so a phone would not set off more than one repeater, hence the "cell". When cell phones were analog they would work when airborne. Even Canada encouraged use of a cell phone for emergency use in GA aircraft. With the digital phones now in use, they will not function above 2000ft AGL anyway so I am not to worried about phone use in aircraft at cruise flight. As far as tablet use the FAA already let the cat out of the bag on that issue when air carriers got approval to use them in the cockpit, a process that can take 2 years.

Posted by: matthew wagner | December 11, 2012 7:29 PM    Report this comment

"With the digital phones now in use, they will not function above 2000ft AGL anyway..."

Although it remains an unlawful use, I can assure you that my T-Mobile Galaxy II telephone works quite well at unpressurized GA altitudes above 2,000' AGL.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 12, 2012 6:17 AM    Report this comment

Do we really need to be able to talk on our cell phones in flight! Realy?!... I can't believe how many people have withdraw symptoms similar to a drug addict when you take their phone away. I don't want to sit on a plane listening to someone's gossip conversation. The current ban on cell phones is a nice reprieve from all the senseless chatter.

I guess it's about time to convince my wife that we 'need' to buy our own airplane ;).

Posted by: John Rollf | December 12, 2012 8:07 AM    Report this comment

One more step in making airline travel about as pleasant as a bus trip. It's a win for the unwashed masses but one more irritation to endure. On the upside, private aircraft travel becomes more attractive.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | December 12, 2012 8:18 AM    Report this comment

I’m all for cell phone use on A/C. The flying public has known for years that cell phones don’t interfere with the flight deck navigation (if it did, there’d be planes down all over since probably 5% of people flying commercial forget or don’t know how to turn off their phones).

While I’m not thrilled to listen to someone’s conversation for two hours, I’ll defend their right to use that gadget until my last breath. If I don’t like their talking, I should buy ear plugs or something. The bottom line is that a passenger might as well be productive during the flight. And, if using the phone adds to their productivity then go for it.

Posted by: richard peters | December 12, 2012 8:27 AM    Report this comment

Must be related to T-mobile, Thomas. A friend of mine had T-mobile and would merrily chat away in his Seneca, while my Virizon phone wouldn't work at all, or only marginally.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 12, 2012 8:42 AM    Report this comment

Anyone who commutes on public transportation can easily attest to the chatty commuter. Nobody wants to know who you slept with or what you did with that person or why you hate your husband and who you're cheating with out in the open. A majority of the people who have not the decent courtesy to keep it low and short are also very proud and loud when having these phone conversations in public. No thanks.

As for tablets, as long as I can legally sue the person who owns the tablet that flies into my head during a V1 cut or other events, I'm all for it.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | December 12, 2012 8:54 AM    Report this comment

Being the devil's advocate, a good reason to avoid their use during the sterile phase is the same exact reason flight crews have to follow the sterile cockpit principle. Distraction. How many times have you seen an individual plugged into an MP3 or Ipad, eyes glazed over, 3 inches of drool, etc. Something happens on takeoff or landing, do you want that person (totally oblivious to anything happening around them) blocking your way out of the plane or more importantly sitting in front of the overwing exit? As for cell phones, they can create a distraction for the crew up front. I have heard many times a "warble" over the plane's headsets when someone in the back either calls out or receives a call. Seems to be most noticeable during the landing phase where the noise in the flight deck is minimal (engines at reduced power and less airflow over the windshield) but I have heard it on takeoff. At altitude it is not an issue, as mentioned they don't work over a certain elevation. I still agree with keeping them off during operations below 10,000'.

Posted by: Scott Krugerud | December 12, 2012 9:03 AM    Report this comment

I have no love of cell phones, but if I were to ever fly on a commercial airliner again (not bloodly likely given the TSA) I'd sure like to be allowed to use my aviation GPS and VFR sectionals. Meanwhile: Boycott all non-exempt commercial air travel. Now also boycott Amtrak trains, football games, and rock concerts. Bring back the fourth amendment.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | December 12, 2012 9:13 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I couldn't agree more. I am not willing to sacrifice my sanity so the passenger sitting next to me can yak endlessly on a cell phone.

Posted by: C HULL | December 12, 2012 9:47 AM    Report this comment

It could be T-Mobile. We were with Verizon for 19 years, and all of the very many cell phones we ever had from them worked as well at altitude as they did on the ground. Which sometimes wasn't very well...

We dropped Verizon because their service was so spotty. They like to tell you that their service "reaches more Americans" than any other provider. Given the population concentration in big cities, that well may be true. But we like to use our mobile phones when we're away from the big cities ( ! ), and in that regard, Verizon failed us often. So far, T-Mobile's service has been flawless; their data speed has been 10 times what we ever got out of Verizon, and we're paying half as much for the privileges.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 12, 2012 10:19 AM    Report this comment

Paul look on the bright side we will have to wear our Bose,or DC noise attenuating headset on commercial flights to drown out the racket.

Posted by: James Greig | December 12, 2012 10:48 AM    Report this comment

I must be missing something. I've never had a cell phone that worked at all in a GA aircraft above a few thousand feet and no signal whatsoever in an airliner.

Posted by: Scott Dickey | December 12, 2012 11:17 AM    Report this comment

There's a reason Amtrak deployed no-cell-phone cars on its high-end Acela trains. Airline travel is marginally endurable in steerage. I cannot imagine being in the middle with a chatty seatmate on either side.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | December 12, 2012 11:39 AM    Report this comment

There's nothing common about courtesy these days.

Posted by: Shannon Forrest | December 12, 2012 1:10 PM    Report this comment

While on the topic of trains, even Metro-North Railroad (CT/NY commuter rail, for those not in the northeast) has instituted "quiet cars" where cell phone talking is banned. Trying to do the equivalent in an airplane seems about as futile as having separate smoking and non-smoking sections (the smoke still reaches into the non-smoking sections).

Tablets and e-readers are one thing, but between the noise I've picked up in my headset from cell phones and the possible (though unconfirmed) case where ATC lost my transponder signal when I forgot to turn off my phone (I didn't realize it was on until I landed), I'd prefer the current cell phone ban remain in effect. No one flying commercial aviation is that important that they can't be out of touch for a few hours.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | December 12, 2012 1:15 PM    Report this comment

Although one can speciously argue about the "right" to use a device on a air carrier, ultimately it's up to the individual airline if not banned by the FAA. It's their plane and their rules. The annoyance factor can also be said about the person that decides to recline the seat in your face because he needs a full nights sleep on a 45 minute flight from Dulles to Norfolk. I don't walk into the Hilton and ask them to fly me to Dallas. I don't expect to sleep on an airplane.

I also don't expect an aluminum tube going 500 mph in an environment that won't support life to function like an airborne Kinko's. Unless you've got the codes to the missiles, are a bail bondsman or priest, the call can probably wait.

Posted by: Shannon Forrest | December 12, 2012 1:20 PM    Report this comment

Sure, an iPad (or other personal electronic device) weigh only a pound or two. But the possibility of having scores, if not hundreds, of these hard case objects out and unsecured in an aircraft cabin - during phases of flight when turbulence and emergency procedures are more probable to send them hurling through space - seems ill-advised...though quite possibly a trial lawyer's delight!

Posted by: Roger Finnell | December 12, 2012 2:02 PM    Report this comment

I'm not sure if having all these electronic devices out during a crash will make much of a difference. Most people I've seen "stow" these items on their laps or in the seat-back pockets anyway, so they're already going to be projectiles. And any event violent enough to turn one of them into a projectile is just as likely to cause the overhead bins to open up.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | December 12, 2012 2:07 PM    Report this comment

I certainly agree with concerns regarding the specter of the fat guy next to me not only slopping over into “my space” but simultaneously bombarding me with his oh-so-important phone conversation.

However I think overall the flying public would support an airline’s ban on voice calls. After all, they did it to smokers, and I’m sure smokers were no less passionate than cell addicts about their “right” to degrade another’s enviornment.

As far as wanting some sort of definitive proof that devices can’t possibly cause planes to crash, I’m afraid that falls under the bromide that it is impossible prove a negative. I say go with demonstrated reality.

Posted by: John Wilson | December 12, 2012 3:16 PM    Report this comment

It sounds like a ban on use of the voice function, with data and text permitted, would satisfy the most people. And it's easy to enforce because most phones won't work at most flight altitudes without a repeater on the plane. So how about we allow the airlines to put a cell repeater on board as long as they turn off the voice channel?

Posted by: Jonathan Spencer | December 12, 2012 3:20 PM    Report this comment

When you fly today maybe four or five people leave their cell phones on intentionally or because they do not know how to turn it off. Now we are going to allow a plane load of passengers not only turn their phones on but make actual calls!

Every radio, even a receiver, has a local oscillator which emits radio frequencies (RF), now amplify that by a factor of 10, 20 and even 30 devices not only on but many making calls you have a lot of RF in a small area thus increasing your odds of interference with the navigation equipment of the aircraft.

Without getting too technical, it is the mixing of various frequencies that cause undesired frequencies to be produced that could interfere with the nav equipment.

I would prefer to wait for the testing to be done and prove such a situation is safe.

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | December 12, 2012 9:10 PM    Report this comment

I have only seen, and participated in, one mass revolt / act of cruelty, when a particularly shrill voiced grandma treated a whole train carriage to the arrangements for meeting her daughter / cooking a meal, greeting the grandkids from school, with the speaker phone on loud.
The whole carriage started making observations and suggestions, some of which I hope the grandkids would not understand.
She was oblivious, although her daughter realized something was up, until the whole carriage gave her a standing ovation when she, finally, rang off.
A few more mass actions like that will solve the train problem and will certainly make flying more interesting.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | December 13, 2012 7:40 AM    Report this comment

Richard Peters...if constant farting were as common as inconsiderate babbling, would you just buy nose plugs and 'live with it'?

Posted by: Karl Schneider | December 13, 2012 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Should be pointed out that practical use of phone/data devices on passenger jets does indeed require on-board cell repeaters, typically connected via a satellite link, so what the discussion is really about is changing the rules to allow aircraft in U.S. airspace to operate such "micro-cell" systems.

Is is safe? A quick check of news sources doesn't reveal any instances of cell-equipped foreign carriers such as Emerates having planes fall from the sky.

Posted by: John Wilson | December 13, 2012 10:21 AM    Report this comment

I have AT&T and while I don't know if I can talk above 2000 feet--don't have the fancy headset to insert the phone into the intercom system--it certainly texts just fine at higher altitudes. It occasionally will be reliable enough to give me the airport webcam at my home base, letting me know if I want to continue IFR knowing I'll break out, or land somewhere nearby.

Posted by: DAVID CHULJIAN | December 13, 2012 11:36 AM    Report this comment

What Scott Krugerud said. People behave differently with phones/devices than with paper books or other distractions. It is illegal to drive distracted, yet there was still a use in passing specific "no texting while driving" laws to highlight a specific problem. In an emergency, which is most likely during t/o and landing phases, there will be a natural reaction of many people to make a call instead of paying attention to the person who knows the answers: the flight attendant. Anyone who can't manage to wait 20 mins to make a call or send a text is probably already texting/calling while driving and destined to become a statistic. All very Darwinian. Evolution trumps technology!

Posted by: Ben Inglis | December 13, 2012 1:03 PM    Report this comment

Let's look this another way. Where's the scientific data that says this is not a problem? Do we need a smoking hole or two before a study is done?

Let's look how FCC chairman Julius Genachowski treats his role as head-protector of the US airwaves. With urging from one large company, he started the cat fight over LightSquared's infringement over GPS frequencies. He Started It. By knowingly granting LightSquared a waivier that anyone with the least amount of savvy in radio communications would have prevented in the first place.

Instead, the FCC chairman decided to test LightSquare's GPS non-interference "theory" in the court of public opinion. And it came within a hair's breath of reality before it was stopped, at great expense mind you, by a consortium of GPS industry leaders.

The federal government's role is to protect citizens by regulation from undue harm - the FDA, FAA, CIA, DoD, etc. The FCC's mandate in particular is to protect the public by preventing interference of airwaves.

It seems that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has other ideas, some of them against the very public he's charged with protecting. When texting is more important than air travel safety to someone charged with public safety without evidence of safe operation, maybe it's time to urge our representatives for a change in the head of the FCC.

Posted by: Mike Perkins | December 13, 2012 5:21 PM    Report this comment

Mike, you are absolutely correct in pointing out that the FCC, once an eminently professional engineering-oriented organization, has devolved into just another playpen for dilettante political appointees. You could turn communications policy over to Lady Gaga and get better results.

That having been said, however, I still must point out that years of experience with cell phones in airplanes, including both the “accidental” use in the USA and the widespread mass use throughout the rest of the world on micro-cell equipped air carriers have demonstrated they do not cause planes to fall out of the sky. So I still maintain any concern it will suddenly start to happen is misplaced.

Posted by: John Wilson | December 13, 2012 6:10 PM    Report this comment

I don't care about tablets, but if they do allow cell phones then I hope they do it like they did smoking - remember when the allowed you to smoke on airplanes? The smoking section was in the back of the plane by the outflow valve. Put the talkers back there. It will have the added benefit of my getting a better seat!

Posted by: Joel Ludwigson | December 13, 2012 8:58 PM    Report this comment

Aw gee I love to listen to gossip and if someone wants to spill their guts in public then I have every right to listen. When someone says to me “excuse me I have to take this phone” and then continues to talk in front of me I simply look at them and continue to listen. If they say “this is a private call” I reply “then go somewhere away form me so I can't listen” why do they think I have to move! Many time after their call I will ask questions regarding comments they made. This promptly stopped any telephone calls during meetings I had.

So Mike you approve of the TSA, what they do and can do? It is the peoples right to protect them selves not the governments. Your forefathers were very concerned about that, hence the reason for the right to carry arms.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | December 14, 2012 6:04 AM    Report this comment

There is a basic lesson from history for all of this. Signal leakage from portable electronics has caused problems in the past. Transistor radios would sometimes leak enough signal to interfere with NDBs and 4 leg radio ranges.
Even though they might not have bluetooth or wireless networking enabled a digital device always leaks low level radio signals as a result of its operation. A poorly designed tablet or smartphone could easily leak enough signal to interfere with some of the VHF and UHF radio signals used for communications and navigation. It only needs a one in a million chance of happening to wind up costing a hundred or so lives every few years. With the equipment in a standby mode the power level and bandwidth of leaking signals is different from when it is in use. Someone turning on their tablet or portable game during an approach or other critical phase of flight might change the leaked signal enough to cause an abrupt problem when there isn't space or time to deal with it. The NTSB would be unlikely to find the source in a case like this.
Even if technical standards and testing requirements to certify devices for use in aircraft were established there would still be many cheap or knock-off devices with fake certification labels out there.
Unfortunately the recent Lightsquared debacle has demonstrated that the top levels of the FCC are occupied by people without the technical expertise needed to properly regulate matters relating to radio interference.

Posted by: Michael Bevan | December 16, 2012 6:52 AM    Report this comment

I know I’m sounding like a broken record on this, but notwithstanding the US ban on airborne cell phone operation, wireless devices are in routine use in more and more carriers’ aircraft. In the USA, Alaska, Southwest, Delta, American, US Air and probably others I don’t know about are all flying with on-board wi-fi, which is not prohibited in US airspace. Outside US airspace, British Airways, Thai Airways, Oman Air, Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, Lufthansa, Saudi Arabian Airlines, EgyptAir, Libyan Airlines, AirAsia, TAM, Aeroflot, Air New Zealand, TAP Portugal and Emirates, and again probably more I don’t know about, are operating with cell-phone service in operation on board.

Can I, or anyone, absolutely, positively, 100%, without any conceivable possibility and to the complete satisfaction of every doubter that a computer’s clock oscillator won’t cause the GPS to take you to Hong Kong instead of Atlanta? Nope. But offered odds of a nickel against a million dollars I wouldn’t waste the nickel, nor would I refuse to fly any of the airlines above because I was worried about it.

Posted by: John Wilson | December 16, 2012 3:34 PM    Report this comment

Hey John,

It is not the computer's oscillator that we are worried about but the transceivers local oscillator. One of the biggest problems a tower operator suffers is the mixing of radio frequencies that can and will produce undesirable frequencies, some of which that may interfere with other receivers.

I concur that this is probably only a real problem below ten thousand feet.

As I understand it there is comprehensive testing underway in the U.S..

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | December 16, 2012 3:54 PM    Report this comment

I’m being slightly facetious for effect, although desktop computer makers don’t build all that shielding into the box just out of the goodness of their hearts. Receiver LO’s, being clean oscillators by design and functional necessity as well as being very low level signal sources, generally are not going to be a significant problem. They won’t produce enough RF to bother anything even on-frequency, much less on some other frequency via a non-linear mix in some other circuit. You may detect single frequency “spurs”, but only on the LO frequency as would have been the case in the ADF example alluded to by Michael Bevan.

In truth, when problems crop up with RF interference it is virtually never found to be the fault of consumer portable electronics. Typically it is something like the oscillating Garmin amplified GPS antennas that had stability problems, or something really weird like a servo amplifier or some other gain device that due to internal problems became an oscillator.

Again I propose that the best testing is mass real-life experience, and we are getting that in spades from existing foreign carriers that have cell-enabled aircraft.

Posted by: John Wilson | December 16, 2012 6:50 PM    Report this comment

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