The debate over Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibiting use of wireless gadgets during taxiing, takeoff, and landing may be shifting in favor of easing the rules. But the debate is hardly over.
The FAA is now trying to develop a testing strategy that would clear e-readers and tablets for use during those critical moments of air travel. The current strategy involves testing each device, separately, on each model of aircraft on flights that would include no passengers. It obviously would be an expensive process, although it might eventually prove feasible for testing Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad, Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s (NYSE:BKS) Nook, and other e-readers and tablets.
Because there are so many models of cellphones on the market, however, it isn’t practical to test them using the one-flight/one-gadget regimen, which means the “gadgets off” rule will remain in effect for those devices indefinitely.
That prospect doesn’t sit well with wireless industry players like CellAntenna, a Florida-based wireless specialist that declared in a recent press release that cellphone technology long ago made the FAA’s electronic-gadget restrictions obsolete. Back in the early days of cellphones, the company noted, the devices emitted relatively powerful transmission signals to connect to service towers, and those transmissions could interfere with control-tower communications at airports. But that is no longer an issue with cellphones manufactured this century, the company points out, because of improvements to their software and the adoption of low-energy transmission technology.
“If the FAA was right, and cell phones were dangerous, why would they even allow them on airplanes?” says Howard Melamed, CEO of CellAntenna, adding that there are “reasons for keeping a cellphone off before takeoff and landing, which include making sure attention is given to safety procedures and for common courtesy. However, since it’s almost impossible to make a call above 3,500 feet, let alone at cruising altitude, keeping the cellphone on will ultimately only drain battery as it tries to reach a tower with which it cannot communicate.”
On the other hand, concerns and uncertainty have been lingering ever since a study by the International Air Transport Association, a Canada-based trade group, found that over six years there were 75 signal-interference and disruption incidents that could be traced to passengers’ use of electronic gadgets on planes.
Tests by Boeing (NYSE:BA), for example, revealed that the worst offender for electronic interference was the iPad, followed by the iPhone and Research in Motion’s (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry. Among the incidents cited in the report, which attracted media attention after it was released last year, 26 affected the flight controls including the autopilot and landing gear, 17 affected navigation systems, 15 affected communications systems, and 13 produced electronic warnings, including some for the engine.
Dave Carson, an associate technical fellow for Boeing who has served on a U.S. advisory group that looked into the issue, told the Daily Mail that phones and electronic gadgets could cause major problems for pilots.
“It could be you that you were to the right of the runway when in fact, you were to the left of the runway, or just completely wipe out the signal so that you didn’t get any indication of where you are coming in,” he said.