FAA ruling on personal devices in flight leaves troubling safety questions

William J. McGee
Yahoo News
FAA ruling on personal devices in flight leaves troubling safety questions

Though a recent Federal Aviation Administration committee ruling scored a victory for air travelers, with potential to clear the skies for portable electronic device use from gate to gate, prominent aviation experts and groups question whether the agency panel was steamrolled by industry interests at the possible expense of safety.

At issue are not just the murky specifics of whether iPads, Kindles and other electronic gizmos do cause potentially dangerous interference in flight. Dozens of pilots say they can, one reason why a ban on using cell phones for voice communication in flight will continue. The ruling also places some of the busiest airline employees charged with passenger safety--flight attendants--in the role of arbiter as to what device may or may not be safe, and when.

The new rules on PEDs are a tangle of details, whether or not devils are embedded within. Each airline will have to consult the FAA on tolerance testing, so eventually, regulations may vary not only by airline but by airplane type. Some devices will be allowed, but cell phones and other PEDs will not; some at certain phases of flight, but not at others; some modes may not be acceptable at all. Confused yet?

The committee’s key recommendation—allowing PED use at all phases of flight at all altitudes—was opposed by five members out of 27, citing the recommendation “does not adequately satisfy this requirement [to be safe].” Among those dissenting were members of the Association of Flight Attendants and the Air Line Pilots Association. As ALPA said: “While we applaud the FAA’s view that PED use must be shown to be safe before being allowed, we remain concerned that relying on passengers to selectively turn off their devices in areas of extremely poor weather is not a practical solution.”

For many, the new regulations couldn’t have come faster. The same morning the committee released its findings, Delta and JetBlue vied to be first to ease restrictions. JetBlue officially won—the follow-up press release said approval came at “4:15 p.m. ET” on Oct. 31—though it’s also worth noting JetBlue had an employee on the committee.

The war among experts on this topic makes climate change look as certain as the law of gravity by comparison, inside and outside Washington. Sen. Clarie McCaskill (D-Mo.) called the FAA ruling “a win for common sense,” but Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) warned, “having access to e-mail or a movie is not worth compromising the safety of any flight.”

Airlines and tech companies have dogs in this race, but why did so many media reports celebrate these new freedoms without questioning if safety threats remain? One columnist for Reason.com cited the “annoying” and “seemingly arbitrary ban” and added, “as far as I can tell no one has ever cited an actual mishap related to such infractions.” Questionable research aside, that depends on the definition of “mishap,” since chilling reports come in continually from airline crew members.

It all comes down to risk—or more accurately, what aviation safety experts term “appropriate risk.” Incidents of PEDs possibly affecting aircraft navigation and communications systems have been logged for years, but haven’t statistically accumulated into a tipping point. Unless, of course, you were on an airplane that experienced life-threatening navigational failures during “critical phases” of flight. According to Boeing, only 9% of fatal accidents occur during cruise, so there’s no overestimating how grave PED interference could be during take-off or landing. And if you are a responsible traveler and PED user, there's no guarantee the guy seated three rows back is going to turn off his device when told to.

In 2011 a noted expert, Boeing engineer Dave Carson, explained all devices with batteries have “some level of emission that has the potential to interfere with cockpit instruments or navigational equipment.” What’s more, in 2011, a leaked document from the International Air Transport Association detailed 75 separate airline PED incidents worldwide between 2003 and 2009, including interference with flight controls, autopilots, communications, and landing gear.

Last week even the FAA acknowledged the dangers: “There are reports of suspected interference to communication and navigations systems in both the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System and the FAA’s Service Difficulty Reporting system.” As for NASA, that database is sobering reading.

In January, NASA updated the 50 most recent events involving passenger PEDs and aircraft malfunctions. Reports of smoke and even fire in aircraft cabins allegedly caused by malfunctioning PEDs are frequent, as are cabin crews arguing with passengers refusing to turn off devices.

The scariest reports detail three separate traffic collision avoidance systems automatically responding to “false target” signals and a 767 that experienced multiple malfunctions including loss of engine, flight instruments, and auto flight systems. Among other highlights are misaligned headings, radio static, and the following:

  • A portable Garmin GPS allegedly interfered with a 737’s navigation update functionality.
  • An A320 reported VHF interference from a cell phone.
  • A 757’s fuel gauge “blanked” due to possible PED interference.
  • An MD80’s flight management system experienced a misaligned heading.
  • A 737 crew experienced erratic localizer signals while approaching a runway and suspected a PalmPilot.

Has public opinion trumped safety here? Christine Negroni, a veteran aviation writer who served on an FAA safety advisory committee, points to what she sees as faulty reasoning. “It’s so weird because it doesn’t matter if you say there are unanswered questions,” she said. “As for the FAA, what could they do? So they’ve yielded to the industry and the public.”

Several aviation experts, moreover, have said the FAA's committee was a stacked deck. The Washington Post publicly questioned why Paul Misener, Amazon’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, chaired the technical subcommittee, noting, “it’s still eyebrow-raising that a company with the most commercial interest in the outcome of a panel’s report would directly oversee the scientific content of that report, as opposed to, say, some independent technical expert, or even someone on the FAA’s staff who might know about such things.”

Negroni notes the larger safety issue may be non-compliance with federal aviation regulations, as countless passengers have violated these FAA directives for years. But fighting invisible electromagnetic demons is wearying—recently both Alec Baldwin and New York’s Sen. Chuck Schumer cursed out flight attendants for enforcing the ban (ironically enough, Reason.com chided the Democratic senator for his behavior.)

So besides being bouncers, security screeners, and human baggage sizers, flight attendants now will be asked to police a complex set of rules for different devices on different aircraft types on different airlines during different phases of flight. An industry insider characterizes the situation bluntly: “The flight attendants have given up on this.” One can imagine a legion of Alec Baldwins freshly affronted that they had, in fact, 10 more minutes left of playing time on a hand-Scrabble game.

Meanwhile, one safety expert worries about securing PEDs during take-off and landing, and how they could distract us during an emergency or evacuation. Hopefully it won't be a crisis caused by a PED in the first place.

William J. McGee is a longtime airline safety advocate and author of the book Attention All Passengers. He teaches at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in Queens, N.Y., and served as the lone consumer advocate on the DOT’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee.