Will the FCC and the FAA Allow Expanded Use of Wireless Devices on Airplanes?

Here’s an important announcement for gadget-laden air travelers: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski reportedly has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to “enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices during flights.”  As travelers know well, the FCC and the FAA place significant legal restrictions on passenger use of portable electronic devices during air travel, particularly during takeoff and landing. The Chairman’s letter may open the aircraft door to a policy that releases public pressure and enables increased wireless gadget use during flights.

The FCC and the FAA have limited in-flight use of portable electronic devices due to concerns about potential wireless interference to aircraft systems used for navigation and communication. FAA rules largely prohibit the use of such devices in flights, with limited exceptions. In August, the FAA announced plans to review these regulations, and the agency has requested public comment. Reportedly, the FAA does not intend to expand the rules to include voice calls. Chairman Genachowski issued a statement in support of the FAA’s review last August, saying that “[d]ramatic changes in technology and society make it both appropriate and timely for the FAA to review whether updates to their rules are needed.”

Current FCC rules prohibit passengers from using cellular phones and other wireless devices on airborne aircraft. Several years ago, the FCC launched a proceeding to consider lifting this restriction, but the agency terminated the proceeding in March 2007, citing “insufficient technical information” on potential interference.  The FCC also coordinates closely with the FAA on air-safety matters, such as for towers near airports that require registration with the FCC and for certain wireless devices operating near Terminal Doppler Weather Radar systems. Safety issues are among the FCC’s highest enforcement priorities, which makes the news of the Chairman’s letter, and his apparent willingness to revisit these issues, particularly noteworthy.

As our travels and our productivity depend on increasing gadget use, it is a sign of the times that the FCC and the FAA are taking a fresh look at their regulations. Loosening the rules would require tackling some challenging safety and technical issues. As a result, air passengers awaiting rule changes should anticipate potentially long delays because the timing and scope of any new rules remain, at present, largely up in the air.