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]


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

  1. Andrew says:

    Exactly right, Cranky. I’m willing to bet 90% of people have been putting their devices into Airplane mode for the past few years, instead of “off.” Heck, I don’t even know how to turn my iPhone truly off–I put in airplane mode, click the button at the top to make it go dark, and that’s as “off” as I know it gets. I think the only reason most people put their stuff in airplane mode to begin with is so they don’t land with a dead battery from your phone trying to search for a signal for three hours…

    I’m guessing the FA’s just aren’t even going to attempt to enforce, which I think will make everyone’s life easier.

    • Shane says:

      Some BlackBerries, for those that still have one (mine is by my employer, not my choice) cannot be turned off at all unless you pull the battery. I have to admit I didn’t of that because 1) I was afraid to loose the battery in my bag and 2) when you pulled the battery the mail from that time would never get delivered.

    • David M says:

      If you hold that button down for a few seconds, you’ll see an on-screen slider to power off the iPhone completely.

      https://support.apple.com/kb/HT1430 describes the process with pictures.

  2. Thomas says:

    Good points. Here’s another. I’m a lot more likely to forget to put my phone in Airplane mode when I have to leave it in my pocket. But when I have it out for reading (via the Kindle app) or playing games I always remember.

  3. “””””It expects travelers to just do what they’re told.”””””

    Right like stay in your seat until we reach the gate, don’t board until your row/zone is called, and put you seat back and tray table up. Adults are worst then teenagers at doing what they are told….lol

  4. Ron says:

    So digital cameras and video recorders are obviously considered “electronics”, and I guess analog video cameras are also electronics, but what about film cameras? Some of them have (fairly minor) electronic components, while others are purely mechanical.

  5. gobluetwo says:

    “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.”

    Ha, it’s like how people turn off the radio and tell everyone in the car to quiet down when they’re driving in a monsoon. Or not, but that’s the first thing that came to mind.

  6. MeanMeosh says:

    “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.”

    The great irony here is, many modern laptops, especially of the “Netbook” variety, are actually lighter than some large books. I’d venture to say that my copy of “War and Peace” would do more damage as a projectile than my current laptop!

    I just hope the prohibition on phone calls in flight remains permanent. The last thing I need in the air is the conversation I inevitably hear about once a week on the train on my way home from work, where someone who doesn’t understand that it isn’t necessary to scream into their cell phone recounts their hemorrhoids problem to their friend.

  7. DAB says:

    I do think the aspect of a distraction on landing is concerning with this change. One function of shutting down electronics at 10000 feet was that at least people were aware that landing is happening soon and that might have led to more alertness in the event of a problem on landing.

    I have always thought that shutting down made no sense, but that on balance stowing devices is a good idea from the standpoint of alertness of the passenger.

    I also actually do look at the flight attendent doing the safety demo well more than half the time, simply because I figure it has to be annoying to be doing that with nobody paying attention…

  8. Will passengers be required to stow all electronic devices during take-off and landing? When I was a flight attendant and purser with Pan Am, passengers were required to stow anything that was in their lap or hands (yes, including books) during takeoff and landing, for the obvious safety reasons. If that is not still the rule, it should be.

    • CF says:

      Leslie in Portland, Oregon – No, that’s the whole point of this thing is that they no longer need to be stowed (or turned off).

      • Dear CF: There is a difference between being allowed to use these devices on climb-out or descent below 10,000 feet and being required to stow them (turned on or off) for takeoff and landing. It could be a critical difference for a person who was hit by one of these devices after it flew out of the user’s hand on takeoff or landing (because of, say, an emergency stop or turn). If the new rule negates the old rule requiring a passenger to stow everything for takeoff and landing, it raises serious, longheld safety concerns that have nothing to do with whether these devices are on or off.

        • CF says:

          Leslie – There may have been a difference in the past, but what I’m telling you is that you no longer need to stow these electronics.

  9. DAB, as a flight attendant you wrote exactly what my primary concern (and the concern of all of my colleagues) is about this rule change. Yes, it’s nice to not have to police electronic usage as rigorously (but like Cranky said now we have to determine if it’s in airplane mode or not… oy) but I’m worried about passengers watching video/listening to loud music on their small devices and completely missing brace commands, evacuation instructions and all manner of important information. True, I’m sure you’d notice if something very bad was happening, but we just don’t have a passenger’s immediate and undivided attention anymore and that concerns us all.

  10. I’d say airlines will now have to pay more creative attention more often to those safety videos to keep passengers interested.

  11. Daniel says:

    Cranky, I just got back from doing a SEA-HND and ICN-DTW on Delta and the FAs allowed the use of electronics on both the landing into HND and the takeoff out of ICN.

  12. Axelsarkis says:

    Heh, I recognize that cabin…

    Anyhow, what I’m surprised about is that the FAA is on the cusp of changing rules for once and not following along, which is nice.

  13. Steve says:

    My airline had an incident on Friday taking off from DEN…severe turbulence and injuries to both passengers and FA’s. Everyone thankfully was buckled up but many injuries were from flying debris…cell phones, ipads, etc. Hate to think what it would have been like under these new regulations.

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