The Kindle Menace, Cont.: Is the FAA Being Too Fast, Too Slow, or Just Right?

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A reader is annoyed by my claim that the FAA's approach to the "Kindle problem" is  "cumbersome." As a reminder: the "Kindle rule" is the instruction that computers, phones, electronic readers, digital cameras, and "anything with an on-off switch" must be turned off during taxi time, takeoff, and approach and landing. In deciding whether the ban is necessary -- and its willingness to open the question is laudable --  the FAA will be going through the procedure spelled out by Nick Bilton of the NY Times recently:

the current guidelines require that an airline must test each version of a single device before it can be approved by the F.A.A. For example, if the airline wanted to get approval for the iPad, it would have to test the first iPad, iPad 2 and the new iPad, each on a separate flight, with no passengers on the plane.

It would have to do the same for every version of the Kindle. It would have to do it for every different model of plane in its fleet. And American, JetBlue, United, Air Wisconsin, etc., would have to do the same thing.

The requirement to try every device (iPad and iPad 2), on every aircraft model, from every airline is what I called cumbersome. A reader begs to differ:

Your annoyance with many things related to flying is well-known [JF note: Au contraire! It is precisely because I love airplanes and flying that I am dismayed by what has become of the modern U.S. airline experience], but this statement deserves some comment:

"Thus the FAA is undertaking the reform process in the most bureaucratically cumbersome way: testing every device, separately, in every model of airliner. "

So what would you prefer they do, test certain objects on only certain aircraft?  This isn't a random sample political poll.  It theoretically is a potential human life and safety experiment.

Now if you don't believe there is any potential harm from mass use of electronics on a flight at all, then that's another altogether.  But unless you have the science to suggest exactly that, this type of comment is just a cheap shot and you should be able to do better.

As I said in the original item, I think the FAA is pretty much doomed to approach things this way. Multiply redundant safety tests and standards apply throughout the regulated aviation world. They are part of the reason why developed-world airline travel has become statistically the safest way you can spend your time. If you can imagine a situation in which an iPad2 worked fine on a Delta Airbus 319, but something about the design of a New iPad matched something about a United Airbus 320, to create a problem, then I guess you have to try every combination.

And I certainly agree that there are circumstances where the most exotic edge-case testing would seem only prudent. New categories of drugs are one illustration. Anything involving ionizing radiation -- including, yes, the "backscatter scanners" now being installed by the TSA, but not the "millimeter wave" scanners, as we'll get into some other time -- deserves testing on the basis of "presumed hazardous until proven safe."

But based on everything I'm aware of, the Kindle/headset/computer/digital camera situation seems similar to the that of the millimeter wave machines: that they should be presumed safe unless demonstrated to be harmless. How dare I say this? Answers are in some of the reader comments that follow, but the main one is: for a decade or so, we've conducted a kind of real-world mass survey. The "everything with an on-off switch" edict is often announced but very rarely enforced. (Have you ever seen a flight attendant check that cell phones are actually turned off, rather than just silenced or hidden?) There's not even pretend-enforcement on private-jet flights. So over the years we have undoubtedly had hundreds of thousands of flights taxiing, taking off, and landing while "on-off switches" are set to On, with scant if any evidence of any navigational interference.

Yes, there could be a problem. And, yes, any passenger standing in a TSA screening line could be a terrorist. But just as treating all passengers as potential terrorists (and therefore forbidding them to take yogurt or snow-globes onto a plane) makes screening cumbersome, so too does testing based on the assumption any one of these items could make a plane fall out of the sky. Unavoidable, perhaps. But cumbersome nonetheless.

Now, other readers. First from one in the Dallas-Fort Worth area:

I was a frequent passenger on the Texas Rangers Baseball charters a few years ago - always full-sized passenger aircraft - and no one ever was instructed to bring their seat backs up (another idiotic rule) or turn off anything.
 
As major airlines operated all of the planes we used, which was the case with most if not all other MLB teams, one would think that the crews would be particularly vigilant if there any real dangers posed by reclined seats or electronic/wireless devises:  for an ENTIRE MAJOR LEAGUE TEAM AND ITS HIGH PROFILE ANNOUNCERS/SPORTS PRESS CADRE CRASHING MIGHT BE A BIT BAD FOR PR.
 
Why can't we get the MSM to pick this up and put the pressure on the FAA and airlines to eliminate this lunacy?  As you imply, these regulations debase the serious rules that should be adhered to.  And flight attendants are the ones "distracted" from more important work, while being forced to endure more unhealthy on-the-job stress, to enforce these fallaciously founded rules.

From a writer/editor who is also a longtime pilot:

I was just talking the other day with a friend who is a United 737 captain...  and he said they're still going through a complex testing-and-certification process with their cockpit iPads and aren't actually using them yet for anything useful under 10,000 feet.  They have four in each cockpit: two hard-wired into the airplane and one personal one per pilot that they've been issued.

I'd always heard that the issue with PEDs [personal electronic devices] is not "electronic" but that the cabin crew (and assumedly the FAA) doesn't want everybody deep into their headsets on climb-out or approach when there's an emergency and the F/As need to be heard, and he agreed that that's part of the reason for the below-10,000 ban.  But another potential problem is that though each individual videogame or iPad or, god help us, smartphone puts out a minuscule amount of energy, what happens when you have 300 passengers simultaneously pumping away at laptops or game-boys on the same airplane?

On the other hand, from an FAA veteran:

I watched ABC World News' report on the FAA's review of personal electronics last week. I was very happy until the end of the piece. When the corespondent stated that the FAA would test each device, separately, in each model of the aircraft, I was floored. 

Your article gave the FAA the benefit of the doubt.  As a retired FAA Air Traffic controller, I would say that doing the unnecessary testing is a way for the FAA to distance itself from the original error.  If the FAA so desired, they could deem all FCC approved low-powered personal electronics safe for all phases of flight. This could be done within 90 days .  Data acquisition would take a week at most, the remainder of the timed used in writing the new regulations. (It is the FAA after all.)  Here is how:

My Kindle and my MP3 player are both have "FFC approved" symbols.  All technical information on the RFI characteristics of these device are contained in the FCC databases.  All RFI characteristics of aircraft instruments and flight systems are contained in FAA databases.  A simple correlation between the databases would produce the necessary data.  Any aircraft instrument and flight system that can withstand the RFI from airport surveillance radar should not be affected by a Kindle.

Simple. Should stand up in court.

I expect to be turning off my Kindle for the next two years.

From a reader in the tech world:

A friend of mine was working at Bose while the original (Bose) consumer grade noise-cancelling headphones were being developed. A pre-production unit was taken to the airport to test against real-life conditions. While in use on the ground awaiting takeoff, the headphones emitted a periodic chirping noise. After what was probably a fair amount of work, the engineers eventually realized that they were picking up the RF burst as the radar swept by. The design was tweaked to provide more shielding to reject this noise. The point of the story is that if the airlines/FAA are worried about RF noise disturbing the planes, they're looking in the wrong place. The emissions of the headphones are dwarfed by the deliberate signal of the radar, at least when in close proximity to the airport.

And, finally, back to the original topic: how the combination of economic de-regulation and security hyper-regulation have changed the basic utility of commercial air travel:

I also live in St. Louis [like a reader mentioned here] so it really hits home.
 
A recent business trip also came to mind.  We're working on some machined parts (commercial aircraft components) with a similar company in Wichita and have both visited each other's sites recently.  The trip is between two cities with rich aerospace traditions and we both chose to ... drive.  There are no direct or easy flights and the ones that are available are expensive.  I'm not trying to make any kind of compelling argument but it seemed mildly ironic.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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