FAA May End Stupid Electronic Device Restrictions

Passengers may soon be able to use approved electronic devices during all phases of airplane flights.


Passengers may soon be able to use approved electronic devices during all phases of airplane flights.

Nick Bilton for the NYT (“F.A.A. May Loosen Curbs on Fliers’ Use of Electronics“):

According to people who work with an industry working group that the Federal Aviation Administration set up last year to study the use of portable electronics on planes, the agency hopes to announce by the end of this year that it will relax the rules for reading devices during takeoff and landing. The change would not include cellphones.

One member of the group and an official of the F.A.A., both of whom asked for anonymity because they were not allowed to speak publicly about internal discussions, said the agency was under tremendous pressure to let people use reading devices on planes, or to provide solid scientific evidence why they cannot.

As I wrote in 2011, travelers are told to turn off their iPads and Kindles for takeoff and landing, yet there is no proof that these devices affect a plane’s avionics. To add to the confusion, the F.A.A. permits passengers to use electric razors and audio recorders during all phases of flight, even though those give off more electronic emissions than reading tablets.


The group has several goals beyond determining the safety of electronics on planes, according to an internal document that describes its objectives that was shown to The New York Times. Those include ensuring that flight attendants do not have to be the social police for which devices are acceptable during flight and determining what the term “airplane mode” really means. Finally, the group wants to ensure that whatever rules the agency announces apply to devices that are not on the market today.

The report also hopes to replace multiple regulations with a single, concise set.

To guarantee that the F.A.A. follows through with its promise to relax the rules, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said she planned to hold the agency accountable by introducing legislation.

In a phone interview, Ms. McCaskill said she had grown frustrated with the F.A.A.’s stance on devices after she learned that the agency now allows iPads as flight manuals in the cockpit and has subsequently given out devices to some flight attendants with information on flight procedures.

“So it’s O.K. to have iPads in the cockpit; it’s O.K. for flight attendants — and they are not in a panic — yet it’s not O.K. for the traveling public,” she said. “A flying copy of ‘War and Peace’ is more dangerous than a Kindle.”

The FAA, like most bureaucracies, operate on precisely the opposite instinct that a free society should have: it’s prohibited unless there’s unimpeachable evidence that it should be permitted. Good on McCaskill for helping push back.

Aside from the inanity of not being able to use one’s iPad or Kindle, which has been much discussed here and elsewhere, the electric shaver exclusion is especially strange. The exclusion period typically coincides with takeoff and landing, when passengers are confined to their seats. I for one would be more than a little annoyed if I had to power down my iPad while the fellow in the seat next to me whipped out his Norelco and started shaving his whiskers.

On that note, I suspect most of us who fly on a somewhat regular basis hope that the ban on people yapping on their mobile phones remains intact. Not because it’s unsafe, but because it’s annoying.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Just Me says:

    There is a commuter bus between Concord, NH and Boston and they actually prohibit cell phone use as a courtesy to other passengers and are honest that this is why they prohibit it.

    Phone yapping in a closed space is simply rude, but I have a hard time believing most electronic devices are going to cause a safety problem for a plane.

  2. Jen says:

    Kindles, iPads, etc. no problem. But please, please, please FAA, do not lift the ban on cell phone use. I don’t think I could bear a 5+ hour flight hearing 100 people talking on their cell phones–there aren’t noise canceling headsets made strong enough to block out that amount of inanity.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    the airlines originally supported the ban for electronics because they had planned on selling the services on the aircraft. Remember when aircraft were going to come with screens on each seat and the airline would sell movies to people.

    Now that everyone has tablet, the airlines no longer see selling access or media as a profit center and no longer care if anyone uses an electronic device.

    Luckily, a cellphone does not work very well while in flight due to the switching not working at high altitutde. I dread if the airlines ever figure out how to make cell phones work in airplanes.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW, outside the US there are a number of carriers that have screens on the back of every seat.

  5. Tony W says:

    I suspect part of the reason behind this change is because everyone under age 25 already leaves their devices on and ignores the rule. That served as a de-facto pilot test (hey, I made a joke!) and now it’s hard to deny that we are perfectly safe with the things running.

  6. Robert in SF says:

    I was under the impression that the ban was more for safety inside the cabin than inside the cockpit…

    Most accidents (without citation) occur during takeoff and landing….so person needs to be unencumbered with something that might tempt them to unbuckle to retrieve if lost during a particular bad bounce or jolt, because “it’ll only take a second, it cost $500! What’s the worst that could happen?”. Human nature being what it is….if during a landing or takeoff, I have my iPad or cell phone “ripped” from hands and fly off under or over my seat, I am much more inclined to just real quick, unbuckle, lean over or take a long step and retrieve it…putting myself in jeopardy…and maybe others when I fly into them during a sudden stop or turn.

    I have always thought the “lies” they tell people to keep them calm and controlled (“everything is under control”, “portable electronics are restricted during takeoff and landing”) were necessary at times, so as to surreptitiously keep people in the herd mentality during a crisis, instead of questioning authority…

    I mean if it were truly the electronics interfering with the signal, wouldn’t they just be illegal to bring onto the plane like 5 ounces of liquids?

    Just saying….

  7. John Burgess says:

    @superdestroyer: I can’t remember a trans-Atlantic flight over the past 20 years that didn’t have individual screens for passengers, even in cattle economy class. Nor did they charge for the programs that were played on those screens, whether films, TV, or video games.

    Cheap airlines might have a very limited number of programs or try to charge $6.00 for headphones, but every airline had the screens.

    And if a short flight is made less enjoyable due to cell phone chatter, imagine the joy that comes from 20+ hour flights where the chatter is in multiple languages.

  8. Stonetools says:

    I’m ok with them doing rigorous testing to find out whether electronic devices can affect airplane electronics. After All, stupider things have turned out to be true. But laptops on airplanes have been around for a quarter of a century now. They should KNOW by now the truth about electronic devices affecting airplanes. I expect they were lazy and just never bothered to test. Hey why bother when you can just issue a directive?
    Until not so long along, they could get away with it since they only annoyed a comparatively few business customers. But now, lots of folks own ereaders, tablets and smartphones. Once you are annoying the majority of your customers for no good reason, then you want to change things.
    I expect them to drop the restrictions on device use this year- with the exception that the ban of cellphone use will remain. Even the FAA understands how annoying cellphone use on planes would be, I hope.

  9. Ben says:

    I hope they don’t just restrict it to tablet-sized devices. This is all well and good, but I can’t freaking afford an iPad. I use my phone to play games and read articles, books and such. So if they still freak out everytime I whip out my cellphone, this isn’t going to do me any good. I understand all of your belly-aching about people make calls during a flight, but phones do more than just call people nowadays, folks.

  10. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I agree with Ben. I neither make (nor want to hear others make) phone calls on a plane. However, there’s no reason to differentiate between devices when it comes to playing Angry Birds or watching a movie.

  11. Stonetools says:


    I don’t think anybody would have a problem with people using smartphones for non call purposes. Reading, playing games and music ( with headphones) and texting in silent mode would all be fine. Just don’t be be an asshole would be the general rule to follow.

  12. Gustopher says:

    This is coming shortly after they lifted the ban on varying knives in the cabin — perhaps al Qaeda has infiltrated the FAA?

  13. NickTamere says:

    I’m in the contrarian camp on this issue, but what’s the approval procedure to determine if a device can be used during landing and takeoff? There’s probably not going to be any issues with an off-the-shelf iPad or Kindle out of the box, but how to determine if a cheaply-produced grey market device or something that someone home rigged (like someone poorly soldering a wifi card into) will be interference-free? A well-made iPad probably gives off less interference than a lousy electric razor, but I’m willing to bet a lousy electric razor gives off far, far less interference than a hastily & cheaply assembled (or macguyvered) wireless device.

  14. Rick Almeida says:

    …the F.A.A. permits passengers to use electric razors and audio recorders during all phases of flight…

    That’s it. Next time I fly, I’m going to audio tape myself shaving during takeoff.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    I’m against allowing any electronic devices on during take-off and landing for the following reason: we’re still not exactly sure how much interference there is with airplane electronics (especially the newer planes that fly-by-wire).

    Plus, we’re always going to get some dimwits who try to use their smartphones to call someone.

  16. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: Well, there are plenty of wi-fi equipped airplanes, which means people on them can already talk on Skype.

  17. wr says:

    @John Burgess: I’d find conversations in multiple languages much easier to take. If you can’t understand what they’re saying, it just becomes a mush of background noise. It’s when you can hear the inanity that it gets annoying.

  18. matt bernius says:


    Remember when aircraft were going to come with screens on each seat and the airline would sell movies to people.

    I’m hard pressed to think of a recent domestic flight that didn’t have screens on the back of each seat. And while PPV was something that they marketed, I seem to think the bigger push was for in-flight phone service, as most of those units incorporated a phone.

    @Robert in SF:

    I was under the impression that the ban [during take-off and landing] was more for safety inside the cabin than inside the cockpit…

    That’s my understanding too. Or rather, trying to prevent flying electronic devices during take off and landing has been the key reason for extending the ban. Same reason for why bags needed to be stowed under the seat during this phase.

    Arguably this made more sense when it came to someone trying to set up their laptop and digging around in bags.

    Still the fact someone can use an electric razor during the “prohibited period” doesn’t fill me with a lot of good feelings.

  19. Dazedandconfused says:

    It was never about the passengers, or anything like that. It’s about preventing potential interference with the ILS (and other) the accuracy of which all lives aboard (in low visibility conditions) very definitely depend.

  20. Dazedandconfused says:

    Adding: The “more emissions” line in the article is woefully misleading. It’s the frequency, Kenneth…