When air travelers are looking for something to read, they’ll often switch on their Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad, Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) Kindle, Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS) Nook, or other e-reader. Unless their aircraft is taxiing, taking off, or landing.
The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the use of electronic devices during those portions of each flight out of concern they will interfere with some crucial aspect of the plane’s operation.
It appears now, though, that the FAA is preparing to review this prohibition, according to New York Times reporter Nick Bilton, who discovered the agency’s intentions when he contacted its media department for an update on the situation. It is true, the FAA official said. The FAA is going to explore ways to test e-readers, tablets, and certain other gadgets on planes.
The last time the FAA tested electronic gadgets was in 2006, before e-readers, computer tablets, and even the iPhone began populating carry-ons. The sheer number of these devices — Bilton cites Forrester Research data indicating there will be more than 40 million e-readers and 60 million iPads and other tablets out there by the end of the year — has reached critical mass, so the FAA apparently felt some urgency to address the gadgets-off rule.
Managing tarmac limbo
There’s a catch, though. To get an electronic device approved for use on an airplane, airlines must request permission from the FAA to test it, and then demonstrate through tests that the device does not interfere with their aircraft’s operation. Each model of aircraft in each airline’s fleet would have to test every iteration of gadget it wants to vet.
That means that each airline would have to test the original iPad, iPad2, and the new retina-screen-display iPad separately on every airplane model in the fleet, on a separate flight with no passengers on board. This must happen despite the fact that newer e-readers and other tablets feature an airplane mode, which disables the device’s radio signals.
Anyway, that’s a lot of gadgets to test on a lot of airplanes. Mercifully, cell phones are excluded entirely from the testing program; there are too many phone models to make testing practical or cost-effective.
But the plan obviously is an expensive proposition in any case. The FAA says it will try to come up with a feasible solution. Bilton suggests that the airlines get together and make a single airplane available for one day a month until the testing is complete, and have the manufacturers seeking FAA clearance for their devices foot the bill.
If the FAA does approve the use of e-readers and computer tablets from gate to gate, it could deal a blow to newspaper and magazine publishers and the airport retailers selling printed material. Airlines, though, could see gains in ancillary revenue, generated in part by selling in-flight satellite-enabled Wi-Fi access. Among major U.S. carriers, ancillary revenue totaled about $12.5 billion last year, an 87% increase over the year before. The industry’s global ancillary revenue is estimated to have increased 43%.