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Wendy is an IFE Agent responsible for aggregating airline news specifically related to Inflight entertainment. She compiles stories relevant to business travelers, airline industry folks, marketers and tech geeks. IFE News doesn't create original content, but rather posts compelling editorial from global media outlets.

Wi-Fi at Takeoff? Expect Delays

Wi-Fi at Takeoff? Expect Delays

[image]Airbus/Associated Press

An airplane pilot uses an Apple iPad in the cockpit of an Airbus jet.

U.S. airline passengers, eager to be able to start using electronic devices throughout their flights, have months to wait until new rules are hammered out.

And even after Washington’s anticipated endorsement of expanded use of certain Wi-Fi devices such as tablets and e-readers—likely including during taxi, takeoffs and landings—everyday changes in the cabin are expected to be phased in gradually, according to preliminary conclusions by a federal advisory panel.

The draft report prepared for the Federal Aviation Administration essentially concludes that easing the current ban on electronics under 10,000 feet is overdue—from a scientific as well as a common-sense standpoint.

But it envisions what is likely to be months of stepped-up testing to identify individual aircraft models most vulnerable to potential electromagnetic interference from personal electronics in the cabin. The report doesn’t sketch out a specific timeline for easing current in-flight restrictions affecting devices.

Once the FAA opts for new rules, according to the report, the move will require additional FAA safety assessments, crew training, broad public education efforts and closer coordination with foreign regulators, so that U.S. rules basically track those in other countries.

The report’s conclusions could change before it is due to be delivered to the agency in September, and the FAA may opt to amend or slow down implementation of recommended changes. But at this point, the panel appears to agree that in most cases, safety risks are “small due to the number of redundant systems” found on most planes.

That view is shared widely by experts outside the panel. “The systems we have out there are very safe” in preventing interference with critical aircraft navigation or flight-control systems, according to Kent Statler, who heads up the commercial business for Rockwell Collins Inc. COL -2.47%

“I have little concern” about use of Wi-Fi devices in the cockpit or the cabin as long as aircraft operating systems “are designed correctly,” Mr. Statler said. “It’s the most difficult test to get through,” he added, before a new jet is certified to carry passengers.

The FAA, which previously indicated it was eagerly awaiting the final recommendations and would act on them, last week said “we will wait for the group to finish its work before we determine next steps.”

Taken together, the draft spells out a phased approach to easing the current ban against using portable electronics during taxi, takeoff and landing. Without specifying which devices should be permitted or precisely when, the document repeatedly urges expanded uses of onboard gadgets to bring FAA rules into sync with the latest scientific data and evolving behavior of travelers.

The draft doesn’t include recommendations affecting the U.S. ban on cellphones, because the FAA didn’t ask the advisory panel for suggestions in that area.

Once the cabin doors close, flight attendants admonish passengers to keep all devices off until the plane reaches about 10,000 feet. But “empirically we know that devices are being left on,” the draft report says, and as gadgets proliferate “it can be assumed that the number of devices that could potentially be left on” will increase accordingly.

According to one recent study cited in the draft, less than 60% of travelers responded that “they always turn their devices completely off when asked to do so.” And many of them incorrectly believe it is acceptable to use tablets, e-readers and other portable electronics below 10,000 feet.

Drafted by more than two dozen industry, government, labor and other experts, the draft report emphasizes the importance of stepped-up training for both pilots and cabin crews. The goal, according to the draft report, is to make them “better prepared to recognize potential risks, and communicate with the traveling public.”

As part of the FAA’s long-term safety initiative, the draft also recommends training for mechanics “on a consistent way of reporting” suspected interference events so they can be properly diagnosed and circulated to inform the industry. In some instances, the draft notes, such incidents now may go unnoticed or unreported.

One of the most confusing aspects of the debate over inflight restrictions on electronics, according to the report, is the rapidly growing use of mobile devices in the cockpit to help with routine flying chores. Increasingly, flight attendants also rely on portable devices to communicate with the ground and keep track of services and food for passengers.

This trend could send “a mixed safety message” to travelers, the report says, if “an airline crew member is using [a device] during a time when the airline has said a passenger device is not safe to operate.”

In the end, the report acknowledges that “risk determinations can be controversial” and expanding uses of electronics in the cabin will entail big changes for everyone. “The roles, responsibilities and assumptions for the flight crew, the operators and the regulators must be clearly defined.”

To avoid conflicts with other countries, the draft calls on the FAA to “coordinate any new policy with international regulatory authorities.”

The draft report appears to be at least several weeks old, and it is missing some recommendations and conclusions. But according to people familiar with deliberations of the FAA-created advisory group, there is consensus on the need to push for regulatory and operational changes.

Still another thorny issue highlighted by the draft findings involves storage of laptop computers and other bulky personal electronic devices during takeoffs and landings. Summarizing data collected by the panel of experts, one section of the report emphasizes that passengers have a hard time understanding why current rules require computers and other larger electronic devices to be stowed during those phases of flight, while similar size books and packages frequently can be kept on laps or seats. That “does not make sense to the traveling public,” according to the report, noting that “conflict often arises between passengers and airline crew members as to what should or shouldn’t be stowed.”

The report, among other things, urges the FAA to redefine stowage rules and “issue guidance that encourages operators to have a relatively standard definition of what is to be stowed.” It also calls for a uniform reporting systems for passenger noncompliance with storage rules.

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