Many aspects of aviation law could easily fly over the heads of passengers — the regulations governing airspace sovereignty may not rank foremost in the minds of everyday travelers — but there is perhaps no area of civil aviation law more relevant to passengers than that which governs what they can and cannot do on the plane.
For decades, regulations set by airlines and the federal government have restricted the in-flight use of portable electronic devices (PEDs). The limitations stem from fears that electromagnetic interference from handheld electronic devices could disrupt a plane’s navigational or communication equipment. While the amount of electromagnetic interference produced by a typical PED is very small, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said that even PEDs that do not intentionally transmit signals may still passively emit radio energy.
The first guidelines regarding passengers’ use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) on board airplanes arose long before the era of smartphones, tablets, and handheld gaming devices. The issue emerged in the 1960s, when portable FM transistor radios were gaining popularity among consumers. Following a report that a passenger’s FM broadcast receiver had caused an airplane navigation system to malfunction, the US Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) formed a special committee to investigate the matter. The ensuing report resulted in a change to the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR), specifically FAR 91.19 (now 91.21). However, the new law did not prevent passengers from using PEDs — rather, it saddled airplane operators with the responsibility of monitoring and preventing electromagnetic interference themselves.
The Rise of the Laptop
In the late1980s, portable computers became the center of the debate surrounding electronics on airplanes. Many airlines prohibited passengers from using these early laptops while in the air, prompting some computer magazines to urge readers to avoid flying with certain carriers. During this time, one airline requested the creation of a federal committee to develop Minimum Operational Performance Standards to assist electronics manufacturers in designing products for safe in-flight use. The RTCA responded with a 1988 report that sought to clarify which electronic devices that airplane passengers could safely use. The report clarified acceptable levels of electronic radiation for in-flight PEDs and outlined methods to test devices for electromagnetic interference. It also advised the FAA to revise its existing PED regulations to provide a more robust compliance framework, standardize incident reporting, and generate public awareness.
In 1992, the US government requested a new RTCA study to broaden its understanding of PED-related electromagnetic interference and prevent unnecessary restrictions on untested devices. This led to the 1996 release of the report DO-23, in which the RTCA advised the FAA to drastically update its regulations. The FAA had recently issued an advisory circle titled “Use of Portable Electronic Devices Aboard Aircraft,” wherein the agency set forth PED testing methods and criteria to support compliance with FAR 91.21. However, the RTCA’s report went much further, recommending that the FAA prohibit passengers from using portable electronic devices during critical phases of the flight, namely landing and takeoff, and completely ban the use of PEDs capable of intentionally sending electromagnetic signals. The report also suggested public awareness initiatives to educate passengers and stated that the FAA should continue testing existing and new technologies in order to keep regulations up to date.
Changing with the Times
For the next several years, airplane passengers could generally use their portable electronic devices while an airplane was at cruising altitude. As the handheld wireless technology market continues to grow exponentially, the FAA’s definition of “PED” has come to mean “any piece of lightweight, electrically powered equipment” and typically refers to “consumer electronic devices capable of communications, data processing and/or utility,” such as tablets, e-readers, MP3 players, smartphones, and some electronic toys.
Recently, advancements in both aviation and PED technologies have allowed the FAA to relax its restrictions. PEDs now use far less power and emit less electromagnetic energy than they did in previous years, while newer aircraft are designed to be less susceptible to electronic interference.
For this reason, the Federal Aviation Administration announced in 2013 that it would offer airlines more authority over PEDs. Under the updated regulations, airlines can “safely expand passenger use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) during all phases of flight” after testing the risk of PED interference on individual aircraft models and obtaining final confirmation from the FAA.
This game-changing decision was the result of a year-long investigation by the FAA’s PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), which solicited expert opinions from both the aviation and mobile technology sectors, as well as input from passengers. The ARC concluded that most commercial airplanes can safely tolerate radio interference and advised that the FAA provide airlines with assessment procedures to test the risks posed by devices such as tablets, smartphones, and e-readers. The report’s 29 recommendations also called on the industry to make aircraft even more PED-tolerant, and noted that airlines must train flight crews to detect and respond to harmful electronic interference.
The FAA has published guides to help airlines assess the flight safety risks of PEDs and implement changes to training manuals, passenger announcements, stowage rules, and other protocols. Several airlines, among them Delta, Alaska, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and JetBlue, now allow passengers to read, play games, and enjoy media on their electronic devices from gate to gate, as long as the devices remain in airplane mode. While passengers must disable their cellular service, they are welcome to use any Wi-Fi services offered by their chosen airline or mobile carrier.
Looking Forward – Changes in the FCC
While passengers can now use their portable electronic devices for a broad array of activities while on an airplane, they still may not make voice calls, which fall within the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Cell phone signals differ from the minor electronic transmissions emitted by most PEDs, as they must be strong enough to travel very long distances. As a result, the FCC seeks to prevent in-flight calls from interfering with wireless networks on the ground.
Passengers may soon see this limitation lifted, as well, as the ARC report that caused the FCC to reduce its restrictions in 2013 also advised that the agency consult with the FCC to review — and potentially revise — its regulations banning cell phone calls on airplanes.