Computers on airplanes

If you’ve flown anywhere over the past few years, then you’re probably pretty familiar with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rule of shutting off electronic devices while on board a plane. While some airlines limit the duration to take off and landing only, as in-flight Wi-Fi gains popularity, others prohibit any wireless signal of any kind during the flight.

Well, this is just hokum, isn’t it? Do the wireless radios in these gadgets actually interfere with the operational equipment of an airplane, as aviation regulators believe? The matter has long drawn criticism from irate passengers, device makers and others, and now it has a senator up in arms.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) describes the policy as “dated” and lacking in any scientific basis, and believes that all it accomplishes is irritating people. She’s not wrong. A 2006 study was commissioned by the FAA and conducted by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, which tested the effects of mobile phones, Wi-Fi and portable electronic gadgets on airplanes. The result? It was inconclusive. There was no evidence to support or negate the possibility of devices interfering with avionics equipment.

In a letter to the FAA, she wrote, “As you surely know, the public is growing increasingly skeptical of prohibitions on the use of many electronic devices during the full duration of a flight…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.” Indeed, services from in-flight internet providers like GoGo do seem to poke holes in this theory, and many passengers sit idly by as their pilots walk by, bringing iPads into their cockpits. (The fact that they may not actually be connected may not matter to public perception.)

The FAA promised to review the rule earlier in the year, but no actual changes have been enacted yet. As such, Sen. McCaskill is now calling on the administration to ease up on this policy. Failure to do so, she says, will result in her pushing legislation that forces its hand.

“Airline employees have the incredibly important job of keeping us safe in the air,” she says. “Their efforts are better spent worrying about rules that actually accomplish that goal.”

What do you think? Do you side with McCaskill and believe that the FAA should revise or rescind its electronics policy? Or do you think the policy is fine as is, and that she’s over exaggerating the situation?