Thursday, September 26, 2013

FAA Panel to Propose Limits on In-Flight Internet Use: WSJ

Updated September 25, 2013, 9:28 p.m. ET


The Wall Street Journal

A federal advisory committee is expected to call for expanded use of personal electronics during takeoffs and landings, but some key restrictions on voice calls and Web use are bound to remain.

The industry-government panel, which Thursday is expected to decide on specific recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, is looking to ease controversial restrictions that currently prohibit passengers from turning on any electronic devices below 10,000 feet.

Despite the anticipated changes, onboard Internet connections likely would remain banned or inoperable on most flights below 10,000 feet for the near future, limiting the devices' usefulness in that airspace.

The committee and the FAA are likely to maintain the current prohibition on the use of cellular connections throughout the flight—whether for voice or data—and they may even require fliers to disable Wi-Fi capability on all types of devices during takeoffs and landings.

Even if Wi-Fi is allowed, Gogo Inc., the largest provider of in-flight Internet in the U.S., said its system isn't optimized for service below 10,000 feet.

Such regulatory revisions also pose potentially thorny enforcement issues. Flight attendants would be required to continue policing the use of devices during certain phases of flight, though checking whether fliers were in compliance could become far more nuanced than it is now. Cabin crews might have to determine whether a device's Wi-Fi or cellular connection has been deactivated.

Even before the panel wraps up its work, some airlines and leaders of flight-attendant unions have expressed concerns about how they will be able to make sure the revised rules are followed, and how passengers are likely to react.

"It would be impossible to enforce," said Julie Frederick, spokeswoman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, with 18,000 members working for AMR Corp.'s American Airlines. She said that sort of system would assume "a flight attendant could go through and examine each electronic device and know how to evaluate it and indicate to that individual that it needs to be in X or Y mode."

Airlines and airline labor unions have seats on the advisory committee and have been discussing enforcement concerns, people familiar with the meetings said. The recommendations are likely to be delivered Monday to the FAA, but the agency could take a long time to make a final determination.

Douglas Kidd, a panel member and executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, said the group will recommend that the FAA should approve the use of devices below 10,000 feet after testing aircraft to ensure that flight-control systems won't be affected. He said it is likely to take "months if not years" for any changes to be implemented.

The FAA has declined to comment on the status of the report, except to say that agency officials will study it before deciding on what to do. In addition to the engineering challenges of developing tests and design standards covering a wide range of aircraft and personal devices, the anticipated regulatory shift also could test the technical mettle of some passengers.

A draft copy of the report presented to the committee members in June but bearing a July date emphasized that "it would be very difficult for the standard set of passengers on an aircraft" to confirm that all of their devices were "in some type of safe airplane operational mode."

To support what it called "the expanded gate to gate use recommendations," the draft document called for systematic safety analyses to determine what impact, if any, passenger devices could have on various onboard navigation and instrument-landing systems. The broad outlines of the draft haven't changed, according to people familiar with the matter.

Reflecting intense interest in the general issue, after soliciting public input, the FAA received more than 200 separate written comments from individuals, airlines, trade associations, equipment makers and other groups. Robert Apodaca, who identified himself as a senior flight test engineer for Lockheed Martin Corp., said he has "never encountered an instance" of personal computers, radios and cellphones interfering with the safe operation of military aircraft. Urging the FAA to lift the current restrictions, he concluded: "Let's get back some common sense."

Though some fliers won't have to power down an e-book or a game they were looking at prior to takeoff of landing, most passengers probably would still have to take at least a limited break from connectivity—and attendants would still question them about their devices.

Almost a year ago, United Continental Holdings Inc. voiced concerns about how to enforce more nuanced rules. In public comments to the committee, United said that "the challenge for cabin crews to discern one device from the next…can not be understated and would be difficult to manage." Attendants wouldn't be able to monitor the use of devices during takeoffs and landings because they must first complete cabin checks and then be seated with safety belts, the airline said.

The current system of banning all devices below 10,000 feet "provides the clearest and most direct instruction to passengers," the company said, and pilots always should retain authority to unilaterally prohibit electronic devices at their discretion.

On Wednesday, a JetBlue Airways Corp. spokeswoman said attendants already face difficulties enforcing the current ban on devices, and any new "enforcement challenges will likely mirror what we see today."

Both JetBlue and Global Eagle Entertainment Inc., which provides in-flight Internet to Southwest Airlines Co., said their Wi-Fi solutions can be adjusted to function below 10,000 feet.

Still another U.S. carrier said that regardless of what the FAA eventually does, during takeoffs and landings it likely will keep Wi-Fi disabled and make passengers stow their electronic devices.

Delta Air Lines Inc.,  which has one of its senior safety officials as the co-chair of the committee, filed public comments last year emphasizing the importance of expanding approval for cellular phone calls "to all phases of ground operations"—presumably including after the boarding doors are closed and planes are moving around on the ground.

One more tough issue confronting the FAA stems from passengers potentially being hit by laptops and tablets in rough air. Qantas Airways Ltd. filed comments with the FAA saying the "risk of physical injury is still a factor for" devices "which are large."

Another committee member, Paul Misener, vice president of global public policy at Inc., said in public comments filed last year that electronic devices could be divided into categories, perhaps displaying some type of seal indicating approval for use only during certain phases of flight or in certain modes. To help ease the enforcement burden for attendants, Mr. Misener said such restrictions could be detailed "in seat-back literature or printed on the backs of tickets."

The July draft includes recommendations for regulators and industry officials to collaborate on public education efforts using "in seat-pocket magazines," ticketing counters and automated kiosks.

A spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said the union has warned authorities that replacing the blanket ban on devices with a policy that allows devices to be used only under certain conditions would be difficult to enforce because "it would be nearly impossible to just tell from physical appearance that a certain device was being used properly." The spokeswoman said that if the rules change, new training programs will likely be needed.


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