After a long delay, millions of iPods and Kindles finally may be cleared for takeoff. On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it might allow more leeway on the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) on airplanes, pending the results of a study set to launch this fall. Under current regulations, airlines are allowed to make the call about what devices can and can’t be used aboard, without obtaining specific FAA approval. But aircraft operators also have to make a determination that specific devices won’t interfere with communication and navigation systems, and most airlines don’t allow passengers to use PEDs during takeoff and landing. So now the agency is looking to the industry—along with mobile technology companies, pilot and flight attendant groups, and passenger associations—for across-the-board input, noting that both PEDs and aircraft systems have evolved over time. “Recognizing that some passengers may wish to use their devices throughout a flight, the FAA is requesting comments regarding the FAA’s policies, guidance, and procedures that aircraft operators use to determine whether to allow a particular PED for usage during flight,” the agency stated in a request for public comment [PDF]. The current guidance was laid out well before devices like smartphones and tablets became ubiquitous on passenger flights. “I think the FAA simply has been behind the times,” says Edward Faberman, co-chair of the aviation practice at Wiley Rein, and former assistant chief counsel at the FAA. “This was not as high a priority as it probably should have been.” How did we get here? Let’s go to the (selected) timeline: 1958: The FAA gets help from the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (now RTCA, Inc.), a private nonprofit that advises the agency. The RTCA writes documents “to help airlines make the PED allowance determination,” the agency states. 1958–1961: Studies of PED interference conclude that “portable frequency modulation (FM) radio receivers caused interference to navigation systems such as very high frequency (VHF) Omni Range (VOR) navigation systems,” according to the FAA. 1966: The FAA publishes its first rulemaking on the issue, responding to public concerns about subjecting individual airlines to too much “red tape” around the use of specific devices. Ergo:
In response to those comments, the FAA concluded that the aircraft operators were best suited to make the determination of which PEDs would not cause interference with the navigation or communication systems on their aircraft. The FAA also recognized that for it to place requirements upon itself to conduct or verify tests of every conceivable PED, as an alternative to a determination made by the operator, would thereby place an excessive and unnecessary burden on the agency.