AIN Blog: Rules Must Adapt To Technology Changes

 - January 8, 2013, 7:55 AM
iPads in the cockpit
Pilots have quickly adopted iPads for cockpit tasks. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

Missouri senator Claire McCaskill (Democrat) hit the nail on the head when she wrote to the FAA about easing rules on the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) in aircraft. Her letter seeks to have the FAA reconsider restrictions on PEDs, citing as one example the fact that many airline pilots are now using switched-on iPads during taxi, takeoff and landing without any problems. 

But it’s McCaskill’s philosophical summary of the regulatory environment that adds clout to her request and also makes me hope that there are senators who understand regulatory issues: “Importantly, such anachronistic policies undermine the public’s confidence in the FAA, thereby increasing the likelihood that rules of real consequence will be given too little respect. While safety and security must be the top priority in air travel, the FAA and other federal agencies should also work to ensure air travel is as hassle-free as possible by revising or removing regulations that have become unnecessary or outdated.” 

This is excellent advice and should be part of the mission statement of any regulatory agency. The FAA has a fairly robust and extremely time-consuming process for creating regulations and policies, and the process for eliminating policies and rules that should no longer apply is equally robust and time-consuming. The result is a mish-mash of old and new material that often never gets sorted out.

Here’s an example, 91.817, the rule covering civil aircraft sonic booms. Basically, you can’t exceed Mach 1 unless approved to do so in a designated test area or unless you can prove that your sonic boom won’t reach the surface of the U.S. A lot of research is under way to find ways to mitigate the effects of a sonic boom. Does this mean that the boom doesn’t reach the ground? If a boom booms quietly, is it still a sonic boom?

Unfortunately, the regulations don’t help here, and any company that plans to build a supersonic business jet is going to face a multiple-year regulatory hurdle because the rules will need to be rewritten to accommodate new technology. Certainly any applicant can ask for an exemption, but it’s hard to build a solid business around an exemption that needs constant renewal.

Technology changes, and a roadblock that might once have been thought impassable might have a solution. The regulations and the processes that create them must be flexible enough to accommodate change. If a supersonic business jet were to be coming down the pike in the not-too-distant future, then these would-be manufacturers would have had to begin working on regulatory changes already, if not years before now. But that isn’t a good investment of scarce research and development dollars.

We need to figure out a way to eliminate useless rules and policies more quickly and prepare the regulatory environment for technological advances, which are coming rapidly. Countries that do this are going to be able to move into new markets much more quickly. Let’s hope McCaskill isn’t the only smart senator who understands this.


Good luck on getting the FAA to remove any regulations. If congress really wants this issue to change they will have to get off their behinds, get some backbone, and change the outdated rules themselves.

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