Air travellers might soon get a reading break

by Steve Blum • , ,

Something to read for the rest of us.

The Federal Aviation Administration might finally update fifty year old rules on electronic devices – tablets, computers, smart phones, ebook readers.

The current rules, some dating from the 1960s, are there purely out of momentum. Personal electronics pose zero danger to airplanes. There’s never been an incident where a passenger device has interfered with an airplane’s operation and no one has ever come up with a plausible theory about how one might, given modern technology. Think about it: if electronic devices could put an airplane in danger, the FAA wouldn’t solve the problem with frequently ignored rules about when you can and can’t use them. They would ban the devices altogether.

Another concern is the potential for rapidly moving mobile phones at thirty thousand feet to cause confusion for ground-based cell sites. There might be something to that, although the problem exists anyway because people leave their mobile phones on regardless. But that’s not part of the current review.

Back when laptops weighed ten pounds or more, you probably wouldn’t want one bouncing on someone’s knees during a rough landing. Things are lighter now and most devices carried by travellers are perfectly safe. My Kindle is lighter than most books and is no more dangerous electronically than my wristwatch.

Part of the problem is with airline crews – they don’t want to have to make and enforce judgements about what is and isn’t appropriate. I can sympathise with that: I was on a United redeye recently that featured a wide range of personal behaviour choices made by my fellow passengers, as well as surly responses from flight attendants and ground staff. Adding one more thing to argue about would not be particularly welcomed by anyone.

But that’s the world we live in. Airlines shouldn’t solve their personnel and customer service problems with rules that treat everyone like they’re in the first grade, and government regulations should make some effort to keep up with technological change. Expect to hear more when the FAA releases a report in September.