Airplane Ban on Cellphones Reconsidered

On Aug. 31, the Federal Aviation Administration has requested that its longstanding policy of prohibiting the use of personal electronics during takeoffs and landings be open for public comment.

“With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Safety is our highest priority, and we must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight.”

The WSJ notes the restrictions date back to 1991, and were motivated in part by anecdotal reports from pilots and flight crews that electronic devices affected an airliner’s navigation equipment or disrupted communication between the cockpit and the ground.

Over the years, however, Boeing has been unable to duplicate these problems, and the FAA can only say that the devices’ radio signals “may” interfere with flight operations.

Regulators say they’re concern for passenger safety. But the airlines’ concerns may be routed in economics, just as it was in hospitals, a few years earlier.

Hospitals once banned cellphones. Some still do. Hospital staff told patients it was about safety, but hospitals administrators wanted patients to use their own telephone system, which could tack on exorbitant fees.

Hospitals claimed that cell phones could disrupt monitoring equipment. But as hospitals themselves began using unlicensed WiFi, and their own staff began using cellphones, the argument became difficult if not impossible to justify. Today, few, if any, hospitals have blanket bans on cell phones.

Same deal with wireless on planes.

Back in 1991, when the restrictions on wireless were implimented, airplanes made money on their own telephone service, called Airfone. The phone calls were usually quite expensive , costing $3.99 per call and $4.99 per minute in 2006.

Today, banning wireless devices seems hard to justify.

Pilots are supplied with iPads to store their flight plans, with blessings by the FAA. American plans to issue iPads to all pilots and instructors and replace the paper they typically carry.

Airlines also offer in-flight entertainment, while OnAir enables airline and cruise ship passengers to use their mobile phones and laptops for calls and internet access.

Today, nearly every passenger carries some kind of cell phone, tablet, e-reader or laptop. They all want to check email on the ground.

Just like hospitals, airlines are probably re-considering their wireless ban on economic grounds, especially since Airfone discontinued their phone service several years ago.

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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