Monday, August 27, 2012

PING! New Thinking About Gadgets on Planes

Just as fast as I can tweet this blog post to your smart phone, you'll know that the Federal Aviation Administration has heard the pleas of the digitally-obsessed, the always-want-to-be-connected and has taken the second step toward revising its ban on the use of personal electronic devices during critical phases of flight. 

In a press release that just pinged into my inbox, the acting administrator of the FAA said he's putting together a government/industry group to review the oft-studied safety implications of electromagnetic interference on airplane systems. He's also soliciting comments at (Yeah, I printed it. Forgive me poor government worker on the other end of that inbox. I suspect you'll look like Jim Carrey taking prayers for God via email in the movie Bruce Almighty.)

The FAA's goal is to see what devices passengers can use and when they can use them.

“We’re looking for information to help air carriers and operators decide if they can allow more widespread use of electronic devices in today’s aircraft,” Administrator Michael Huerta said. “We also want solid safety data to make sure tomorrow’s aircraft designs are protected from interference.”

Huerta's comment about tomorrow's aircraft designs is curious. The risk of EMI interference is particularly acute on yesterday's designs.  During my time as a member of the FAA rulemaking advisory committee on aging aircraft systems, we learned after years of exposure to extreme weather, temperature variations and pressurization cycles wiring just plain breaks down taking insulating and EMI shielding with it. 

But old or new, there are a number of experts in this field who have insisted when dealing with the potential for electromagnetic interference  the wisest course of action is simply to prohibit the use of laptops, iPods and other gadgets until pilots have the luxury of altitude to deal with any problems that might arise from errant signals from these and other electronic devices. 

That ain't good enough any longer. Everyone with access to the internet and a Google search can find an argument to support their belief that a ban on electronic devices has some malicious commercial motivation at its core. I've even gone crosswise with a blogger at The New York Times over this

But conspiracy theorists, listen up; When one considers all the money to be made by enhancing passenger access to the digital world, the truth is quite the different.

Spend some time with the folks whose business is providing airlines with ways to maximize passengers' access to the web for on board internet sales in which the airline takes a commission and you'll see big, Big, BIG money is behind loosening restrictions, not keeping them in place.

In trying to prevent travelers from using PEDs, Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood must feel like the Catholic church trying to keep priests celibate and parishioners off birth control, it's not happening. 

Of course, by the time this issue is once again studied to death, PEDs could be passé and I can only wonder what the new issue will be.  

Read more on this subject here.

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