FAA May Finally Hit the 'Off' Switch on Its Portable-Electronics Ban

Brian Fung

Despite years of public frustration, the Federal Aviation Administration has never budged on the use of in-flight electronic devices. Last year it set up a commission to study the issue, but since then, it's been as if FAA members were stuck in permanent airplane mode—total radio silence.

Now we've learned that a conclusion may finally be at hand. In a draft report circulated to the Wall Street Journal, the commission recommends loosening the ban on portable electronics during taxiing, landing, and takeoff. Mobile phones might still need to have their wireless radios turned off, but you won't be expected to power them down and stow them away. E-readers such as Kindles and Nooks would likely be allowed at all times.

The full report doesn't come out until July 31September, and even then, FAA officials would still have the final say over whether to lift the restrictions. But this is an important first step, and not only for the sake of customer convenience.

We're consuming vast amounts of data already on airplanes, thanks to in-flight Wi-Fi. (Here, courtesy of Gogo, are some fascinating usage statistics that include a breakdown by device type). But two things are set to kick in-flight broadband into warp speed: A proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to grant more wireless spectrum to the technology (that is, increase the bandwidth), and business decisions by wireless providers to diversify their price structures.

The first, if it goes through, is likely to make broadband on airplanes a more consistent and pleasant experience. The second is likely to attract more customers, many of whom might rather buy wireless for just a portion of a flight. 

With the FAA's relaxation of the portable device rule, we may even someday see competition between in-flight wireless providers and your traditional cellular-service companies. Imagine sitting on the tarmac during a 40-minute delay; instead of having to rely on your phone's 3G connection while you wait to take off, you could be hooking up your tablet or laptop to the in-flight Wi-Fi instead. That future is still a ways off. But we can hope.