FAA Committee Will Study Policy on Portable Devices

 - September 3, 2012, 8:20 PM
The FAA is forming an aviation rulemaking committee to study current policies on the use of personal electronic devices in flight. (Photo: Air France)

Acknowledging the pervasiveness of personal electronic devices (PEDs) such as tablet computers and electronic readers, the U.S. FAA will form an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) to study airline procedures governing their use in flight and to issue recommendations on the potential for relaxing the restrictions. Scheduled to convene this autumn, the ARC will consist of representatives from the “mobile technology” and aviation manufacturing industries and groups representing airlines, pilots, flight attendants and passengers.

In advance of forming the ARC, the FAA has begun soliciting comments from the public for the next two months on current PED policies, guidance and procedures designed to prevent electromagnetic interference with aircraft communications and navigation systems. The agency said the ARC will meet for six months before making recommendations. It will not consider the in-flight use of cellphones, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits because of potential interference with ground wireless networks.

The FAA’s first published rulemaking to address PEDs came as long ago as 1966, prompted by concerns that portable FM radio receivers could interfere with VOR nav systems. Under current regulations, the aircraft operator is responsible for determining which types of PED passengers may use, and during which flight phases. The agency’s most recent guidance–Advisory Circular (AC) 91-21-1B–dates back to August 2006. It recommends that operators prohibit the use of PEDs during takeoff and landing, while allowing their use during non-critical flight phases. In March 2010 the FAA issued AC 20-164, aimed at aircraft manufacturers and modifiers. The document identifies standards developed by the RTCA as “an acceptable means” for designing and developing aircraft tolerance to potential PEDs interference.

In its request for comments, the FAA states that newer aircraft controls and displays, while designed to withstand high-intensity radiated fields, or electromagnetic transmissions, “still have sensitive navigation, communication and surveillance radio receivers that may be susceptible at certain frequencies to spurious radio frequency emissions from PEDs.”

PEDs with Internet connectivity that transmit and receive signals wirelessly by Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or cellular technology top the list of concerns. “These devices transmit high-powered emissions and can generate spurious signals at undesired frequencies, particularly if the device is damaged,” the agency said.

The FAA’s action to convene the ARC drew praise from other interested parties. “Dramatic changes in technology and society make it both appropriate and timely for the FAA to review whether updates to its rules are needed. I strongly support this effort, and look forward to working with the FAA,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. The Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association said it applauds the decision, adding that it looks forward to “commenting and contributing to the FAA’s initiatives focusing on the in-flight use of PEDs.”