Back in early September, we published a post mentioning that the F.A.A. had announced plans for an “industry working group to study [the effects of] portable electronics usage” on aircraft.

At the time, it wasn’t entirely clear how long the process was expected to take, and it still isn’t: The F.A.A. originally indicated that the process would take “at least a year.” (Remember: This study is specifically looking at whether or not passengers will be allowed to use electronic devices during a flight’s taxi, takeoff and landing periods.)

And yet as New York Times reporter Nick Bilton astutely pointed out in a recent online column, because the F.A.A. is essentially a picture-perfect example of government bureaucracy in action, we probably shouldn’t expect the study to reach any definitive conclusions anytime soon. It could take a year, or it could take two or three. Who knows?

No surprise there, right? Right. But here’s something from the same column that may cause you to do a serious double-take:

“The airlines and electronics makers I have spoken with are willing to do whatever it takes to help the F.A.A. approve these changes in a timely manner,” Bilton writes.

“Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, told me the company had done its own tests on its Kindle e-readers and Fire tablets to help hasten the changes. ‘We’ve done experiments,’ [Bezos] said. ‘We loaded a plane with Kindles.’ (emphasis ours —Ed.)

“I asked what happened in the experiments. [Bezos] looked at me as if I were asking the dumbest question he had ever heard. ‘Everybody landed,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t a problem.’

“Mr. Bezos said Amazon had submitted the results and was waiting to hear back from the F.A.A. But, he said, ‘They’ve got a process.'”

Clearly, one independent flight test—even if does involve a plane filled to the rafters with Kindles—does not a conclusive safety study make. Still, this is interesting stuff.

* * *

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind, as Bilton points out, that the F.A.A.’s “current system of testing electronics devices will most likely have to change before [any] gadgets can be used during takeoff and landing.”

Why is that? Because “the agency’s [current] rules state that an airline must test each iteration of a device on each type of plane, without passengers, before it can be approved.”

But with new tablets and e-readers being released on a seemingly nonstop basis these days—and with each device that’s released being available in any number of different versions (16GB, 32GB, with Special Offer, without Special Offers, and so on and so forth ad infinitum), how on earth could the F.A.A.’s study ever end? As Bilton suggests, unless the current testing system changes, it probably never will.

There is some cause for hope, however: As Virgin America’s VP of corporate communications, Abby Lunardini, points out near the end of the column, the rules already have been bent, technically speaking: Instead of requiring each individual airline company to “test each iteration of a device on each type of plane, without passengers,” as currently required, the F.A.A. is instead taking on the responsibility of carrying out the study itself. It’s taking action on its own, in other words, when it technically doesn’t have to.

“We’re pleased the F.A.A. is evaluating [this] and taking steps in that direction,”  Lunardini says.

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In other electronic-devices-on-airplanes news, CNN reported yesterday that “iPads will soon be ubiquitous in American Airlines cockpits. AA is striving to go all-digital by the end of 2012,” the article says, “replacing pilots’ bulky 35-pound bags full of navigational charts, log books and other flight reference materials with the 1.5-pound Apple tablets.”

United Airlines pilots, meanwhile, have been using iPads in the cockpit since last year, and Delta is considering doing the same.


  1. I don’t hold out much hope. By the time the FAA gets around to making a decision the technology will have changed. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the FAA – and its compatriots around the world- to set some standards. Then the gadget makers could pass a test rather than wait for a test.

  2. @PA Wilson–That’s a really smart idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if it does happen at some point. And it’s not as if they’d necessarily have to reinvent the wheel; maybe they could use the automotive industry’s regulations, or something along those lines, as a starting point.

    Actually, I hope you’ll consider passing that idea along. You can download the F.A.A.’s “Request for Comments” (from the public, regarding the study) here (just FYI, it’s a 14-page PDF):

  3. Government reactions and studies always remind me of a story about Richard Feynman. He was part of the panel investigation the “Challenger” explosion, and they were looking into the possibility that the O rings had failed because of cold weather.

    The other members of the committee were talking about a study that would take years and cost a lot while he stuck the ring in a glass of ice water, pulled it out, and broke it apart because it had become brittle. The sheer elegance of this always blows me away.

  4. We have real-life experiements on this every day on real planes. Does anyone really think that everyone on each flight actually turns off their devices? Of course not! Some leave them on in their bags, some only turn off Wi-Fi and/or 3G/4G, and some blatantly pull them out and use them as soon as the flight attendants sit down.

    I’ve yet to hear of an incident of interference or a plane crashing.

    There. Experiment completed, results concur with Amazon’s.

    If these devices were truly a danger, they wouldn’t be allowed on airplanes period.

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