Amazon’s top lobbyist Paul Misener is confident the US FAA is not paying “lip service” to the American public about its intention to strongly consider providing guidance to airlines that could ultimately enable passengers to switch on their personal electronic devices (PEDs) during takeoff and landing.
Noting that he’s “right in there with what the FAA is doing”, Misener last week told attendees of the joint APEX/CEA session at International CES in Las Vegas that FAA leadership “is determined to make a very reasoned, well thought-out decision whether to maintain current rules or modify them somehow. I see no foot dragging on the part of the FAA at all.”
Like myriad stakeholders in consumer electronics, IFE and inflight connectivity, Amazon has a vested interest in seeing the FAA relent on the issue of allowing the use of PEDs during critical phases of flight. As reported by The New York Times, the company famously loaded an aircraft with Kindle e-readers in an effort to show that PEDs don’t cause electromagnetic interference (EMI) with aircraft navigation or communications systems – and to dispel one of the FAA’s biggest concerns.
The FAA this week formally convened an aviation rulemaking committee in Washington DC; the committee is studying whether EMI from PEDs poses a real threat, and is addressing other operational considerations, such as whether PEDs would become projectiles during aborted take-offs. Representatives from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), airframers, airlines, cabin crews, PED manufacturers and the IFE and connectivity sector are participating in the working group.
Rich Salter, chief technical officer at IFE firm Lumexis, together with well-known IFE industry consultant Michael Childers, are acting as liaisons for the APEX technology committee. “There will be four in-person meetings, and telephone calls in between the meetings. They won’t spend two years on this,” says Salter.
He agrees with Amazon’s Misener that the FAA is taking an “expedited” approach, and believes the agency is committed to “trying to make” a decision in about six months, though he says it could take a bit longer, perhaps eight or nine months.
Misener says the “shared challenge” of all stakeholders participating in the FAA’s working group “is either making meaningful changes to the policy today or explaining why meaningful changes can’t be made”. Passengers are wondering why aircraft “aren’t coming down” out of the sky when so many of them break current rules and leave their devices switched on for the duration of the flight, he adds.
Even FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has called on the FAA to make changes, noting that PEDs empower “millions of Americans to stay informed and connected with friends and family, and enable businesses to be more productive and efficient”.
But not everyone is convinced that EMI is totally a non-issue, or will remain so. Derek Spicer, a senior training captain who flies both Airbus and Boeing types, personally has not experienced EMI with aircraft systems, but he warns, “As we produce aircraft with 25-30-year service life, it’s difficult to predict what devices will come.”
A consultant in the audience at last week’s joint APEX/CEA session at CES noted that NASA still maintains a database for pilots to comment on flight deck instrument anomalies. He said pilots continue to report incidents whereby anomalies go away after passengers are asked to turn off their devices. “That’s a strong indication,” he suggested.
Misener counters that there has been “5 gazillion experiments” – in the form of revenue service flights – over the last couple of decades “and no problems”.
He admits that there are considerations for the FAA beyond RF interference. Airlines may still be justified in having people put their devices away during safety announcements, for instance. But Misener notes that passengers are already wearing earphones during safety announcements and this “could be far more distracting than reading an e-book”.
“If we come up with a sensible solution, the cabin crews will benefit,” he says, “because they won’t be in conflict with passengers, and they won’t have to describe things to passengers that are hard to justify.”
So what action can reasonably be expected from the working group? “The emphasis all along has been that the FAA wants to give direction to airlines on how to test PEDs on how they can be used. Right now there is no guidance on how to test them. So this is a true effort to give airlines the procedures and guidance on how to test PEDs to ensure they are safe,” says Lumexis’ Salter.
Misener, meanwhile, says he has “really high hopes” for what the agency is doing.