The Strangely Significant News That You Can Use Your Tech Devices Below 10,000 Feet

By now, you probably know from the many press releases that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has overturned its decades-old rule banning the use of personal electronics below 10,000 feet. Airlines, notably Delta and JetBlue, have rushed to put this into effect immediately with others following behind. I know people are thrilled about this, but really, isn’t it just allowing you to do what you’ve already been doing? You just don’t have to hide it anymore.

Alex Baldwin Electronics

Let’s talk about what this is and what this isn’t. To start, you will be able to use certain electronic devices throughout the entire flight instead of just above 10,000 feet. This includes tablets, Kindles, smartphones, and the one that makes me most excited, cameras… but there is one caveat. You still can’t use your mobile network.

Under the old rule, the airlines used to tell you that you had to turn off your devices, but if you wanted to use them during the flight, put them into airplane mode first. (Airplane mode disables the radio that uses the mobile network.) Now, the flight attendants will tell you to put your devices into airplane mode, but feel free to use them once you’ve limited their abilities. (Admit it – this is what you do anyway, if you even bother to put it in airplane mode in the first place.)

This is good for people who have Kindles and want to read (Amazon has been heavily involved in making this a reality). It’s also good for people who have games or videos on their devices to keep them busy. And of course, it’s good for dorks like me who like to film takeoff and landing from time to time.

What about wifi? Well, for the vast majority of aircraft in the US, wifi still won’t work when you’re on the ground. Gogo provides wifi service using ground stations on most of these airplanes, but if you’re on the ground, it doesn’t function. For airlines that use satellite wifi, however, passengers will be able to use it from gate to gate. I confirmed this with Row 44, the provider for Southwest’s entire fleet. I assume the same will be true for United and JetBlue once they have their fleets outfitted.

Ultimately, it’s what passengers want, and it’s good that the FAA has revisited a decades-old rule that really had no basis is today’s reality. Of course, it’s hard to overcome inertia, so this was a lengthy process.

The concern has always been about potential interference with navigational equipment. Though there have been several reported instances of issues with navigation, nearly all of them (if not all) were never pinned specifically to the use of electronics. After reviewing all the data, the FAA finally agreed that this was pretty silly… sort of.

There is one fairly alarming exception. From the FAA:

At certain times — for example, a landing in reduced visibility — the Captain may tell passengers to turn off their devices to make absolutely sure they don’t interfere with onboard communications and navigation equipment.

In other words, “I mean, the chances are pretty small, so we’ll only really worry if it’s a tricky landing. Ya know, just in case.” Somehow that exception is not exactly comforting. I guess now we’ll now know if our pilots had to really earn their pay on a particular flight.

Beyond just the issue of interference, there were a couple other concerns. First, this will now mean passengers will have more to distract them during safety briefing. I know that most people fail to pay attention anyway, but everyone really should. I don’t know that this will change much, I suppose.

Second, all these devices can become flying projectiles in case of an accident. And accidents are much more likely during the critical phases of flight – takeoff and landing. That’s one reason why only smaller devices are allowed. Laptops, for example, still can’t be used below 10,000 feet. That argument loses even more steam when you realize that people can read a big ole’ hardcover book today. That makes quite the projectile itself.

Third, this could make flight attendant’s miserable. Can you imagine trying to figure out whether a phone is on and in airplane mode or not? Sounds like a nightmare to me, but then again, the FAA has made it pretty clear that it doesn’t expect flight attendants to be cops. It expects travelers to just do what they’re told. Good luck with that.

Now, we’re off to the races to see how quickly each airline can implement this policy. It’s not as simple as just saying “ok, go.” Each airline has to prove that each aircraft in its fleet is capable of flying without being destroyed by the awesome power of a stray iPad. Airlines that have wifi onboard are ahead of the game because they’ve had to do plenty of testing.

And those airlines that sat on this committee are furthest ahead. Both Delta and JetBlue raced each other to say they were first, and both are now allowing the practice onboard. But the roll-out is going to be messy.

Look at Delta for example. Delta still doesn’t allow it on Connection flights, but it’s coming by the end of the year. Delta also sent me some info that it’s only valid within the 50 US states. So if you fly from LA to Tokyo, you can use your device the entire time you’re on the ground through take-off. But when you land in Tokyo, it goes off at 10,000 feet. Good luck enforcing that.

My guess is people are just going to start to use their devices below 10,000 feet across the board. Hopefully it can all get officially approved soon so we get through this transition period.

[Original Alec Baldwin photo Featureflash / Shutterstock.com]

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