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Why the F.A.A. Has Been Slow to Approve Electronic Devices on Airplanes

By Norman Chan

You can use audio recorders and electric razors during take-off and landing, but not a calculator or Kindle.

This past weekend, I was stuck in an airport for five hours after my flight was cancelled, after all the passengers had boarded the plane and seconds away from being in the air. The plane actually screeched its brakes mid-acceleration on the runway, right before takeoff, which was a pleasant experience for everyone involved. The culprit, as explained to us by the captain, was a computer error message that beeped just as we were about to lift off the ground. But after the excitement and nervousness had subsided, I heard more than a few passengers around me make jokes about Kindles or iPads being responsible for the disruption. It's been the assumption of the public for a long time that, despite the F.A.A. prohibiting use of electronic devices during take-off or landing, e-book readers and MP3 players really can't affect the operation of a commercial airplane. Unfortunately, that's never been tested to the satisfaction of the F.A.A., and the holdup is due to cost.

Nick Bilton of the New York Times reached out to the F.A.A. last week to ask about this regulation, and to his surprise, heard back that the government agency would be taking a "fresh look" at using personal electronics on planes--outside of cellphones. The last time the F.A.A. issued a report on the effect of electronics on planes was in 2006, where they addressed Wi-Fi signals and cellphones, but not e-books or tablets. It turns out that to approve a new type of device, the certification process can be extremely expensive and cost prohibitive for airlines. From Bilton's report:

Abby Lunardini, vice president of corporate communications at Virgin America, explained that the current guidelines require that an airline must test each version of a single device before it can be approved by the F.A.A. For example, if the airline wanted to get approval for the iPad, it would have to test the first iPad, iPad 2 and the new iPad, each on a separate flight, with no passengers on the plane.

So while the F.A.A. may now be open to testing new categories of devices, whether or not it'll happen (and how long it takes) will depend on cooperation from airlines and equipment manufacturers, not to mention taxpayer money. The rules simply don't make it an easy endeavor.

Photo Credit: Jetstar Airways

Currently, electronic devices that cause EM emissions have to meet standards for signal interference and are approved by the FCC. That's why new smartphones and tablets are rarely released the day they're announced--they have to go through this week-long approval process. The FAA could devise a similar regulatory process for manufacturers to submit their devices for testing and approval before they go on sale. As it stands, the bottleneck is still the strict testing guidelines, which so far are too cost prohibitive to approve every popular e-reader or tablet that consumers own. When it comes to air travel, it's obviously better to err on the side of caution, but it's also a pity that bureaucracy and budgets force the F.A.A. to default to untested assumptions over reasoned scientific testing.