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FCC urges rethink of aircraft personal-electronics blackout

Signs of sanity over American skies

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The head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has written to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) asking for a rethink of the current ban on using electronic items in flight.

Currently all electronic devices have to be switched off on US aircraft operating below 10,000 feet, and can only used in flight-safe mode (i.e., with the radios turned off) above that ceiling. Now FCC boss Julius Genachowski is asking for a rethink.

"This review comes at a time of tremendous innovation, as mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives," Genachowski wrote in the letter obtained by The Hill.

"They empower people to stay informed and connected with friends and family," he wrote, "and they enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness."

The FAA first started banning portable electronics on flights back in 1991, originally for devices using the 800MHz frequency range but now extending to portable electronics of all types. It looked again at the ban in 2004, but decided to do nothing, but has recently said it's examining its options.

There's no denying that the ban annoys air travelers, particularly since the rules as they stand make little sense. Electronic items that don't even have radios are included in the ban, for example, and there's never been a study that conclusively showed that passenger consumer electronics could cause serious problems for an aircraft.

Cabin crews also loath the rules, since it's a major point of friction between them and customers. Many pilots also question whether the ban is really necessary, particularly as the FAA has already certified them to use tablets at all stages of a flight if the fondleslabs contain flight data.

Keeping the ban on electronics, however, does have one major advantage as far as the FAA, airlines and aircraft manufacturers are concerned: it's cheap.

In order to certify electronics on aircraft, someone has to test each of the thousands of devices for interference on each type of commercial aircraft. But no one wants to pay for that, so it's simply more convenient to issue a blanket ban and leave the cabin crew to take the flak for it.

Hopefully the FCC letter may help nudge the FAA into a more reasonable frame of mind. But El Reg suspects that until a system is instituted for someone (probably the device manufacturers themselves) to pay the testing costs, we'll see no signs of sanity. ®

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