For Airplane Gadgets, Change Is In The AirS

Since last week's "Take Back Takeoff" post, I've had the pleasure of talking to executives & engineers from most of North America's major airlines. First: the bad news.

The biggest airlines aren't budging—yet. Here's something Tim Smith of American Airlines sent me. It typifies the response from the big carriers:

The fact is (and as a technology expert you no doubt already know this) technology creates hundreds of new products each year at a pace that is so fast that we simply cannot keep up with it. We as a company do not have the time, nor the money to test every device that comes down the pike. Plus, even if we did that and one type of device were to be approved by testing, it adds a significant burden on our inflight staff to try and police whether something is actually an approved device or not. Many electronic devices and products often look alike – meaning it either takes an expert in such devices or someone who has the time to go from seat to seat with a list of devices trying to check the model numbers on each device prior to take-off or landing. That is not at all practical. There are many other things going on during that period of flight – several of them important, mandated safety-related steps.

Three obstacles are in the way:

EMI, or electromagnetic interference, which most of the airlines are willing to admit is the least of their concerns.

Regulation and the cost of compliance. Most of the airlines think that testing would be too expensive.

Customer safety. More than anything, it seems most airlines are concerned with passengers being aware during safety briefings or in the case of an accident.

If things go to plan, I'll be joining others in showing how EMI from small gadgets is a non-issue sometime in the next week or so. But even the airlines know that dozens of iPods and Kindles and other non-transmitting devices are functioning without issue in planes every day.

As far as regulation from the FAA is concerned, FAA 14 CFR 91.21B pretty much punts this to the airlines: "It should be noted that the responsibility for
permitting passenger use of a particular PED technology lies solely with the operator."

And customer safety, well...it's an issue. An issue for which I have a lot of sympathy with the airlines. You don't want laptops flying around if there's turbulence—but you don't want that during any part of the flight, yet laptops are kosher at altitude. You want people to be able to listen to music or watch TV, but not miss announcements. As both a customer satisfaction and a customer safety issue, it gets murky very quickly.

But there is good news!

I'm happy to report that more than one airline responded to my queries with more than rote (if friendly) dismissal. And while nothing is for certain until it actually happens, it's looking like there's a chance the more progressive airlines are ready to take a look at the policy and question if it befits a modern airline with modern passengers.

More very soon. (With more terrible headlines.)