Flying “Low” with your Electronic Devices

November 8, 2013

in Travel Tech

  • SumoMe

iPad photoLast week when the Federal Aviation Administration issued its much-awaited decision changing the rules for the in-flight use of “portable electronic devices” by airline passengers, it said that:

“The FAA has determined that airlines can safely expand passenger use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) during all phases of flight, and is immediately providing the airlines with guidance. Expanded use will not happen overnight. The process will vary among airlines, but the agency expects airlines to allow passengers to safely use their devices in airplane mode, gate-to-gate, by the end of 2013.”

But both legally, and as practical matter, what’s really changed and what hasn’t when you’re up in the air with your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or other electronic gizmos?

What Exactly is a “PED”?

The FAA says that:

“A Portable Electronic Device is any piece of lightweight, electrically-powered equipment. These devices are typically consumer electronic devices capable of communications, data processing and/or utility.  Examples range from handheld, lightweight electronic devices such as tablets, e-readers, and smartphones to small devices such as MP3 players and electronic toys.”

Presumably any type of radio will continue to be prohibited from being used during flight.

Not All Airlines Covered

While the FAA has provided guidance to all U.S. domestic carriers on the agencies policy regarding the use of “PEDs,” it’s up to each airline to develop its own plans for implementing the policies.

The new rules apply to U.S. airlines’ domestic and international flights. Foreign-flag carriers will follow the PED rules of their own countries. [Update, November 13, 2013: Today the Website Engadget reported that the European Aviation Safety Agency will issue similar rules by the end of November.]

The travel Website reported that JetBlue was the first carrier to do so. Here’s a video of the airline’s inaugural “PEDs Are Ok” flight, from JFK to Buffalo last Friday, November 1st.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said that the agency is receiving plans from airlines and expects the new PED rules to be implemented by them  before the end of the year.

So far, American, Delta, United and US Airways have joined JetBlue in allowing passengers to use PEDs through the flight. However, as this story it Slate points out, regional airlines that provide service for those major carriers must apply independently to the FAA for permission to allow their passengers to use PEDs below the 10,000’ altitude.

[November 20, 2013 update: Today Southwest Airlines announced that passengers can use personal electronic devices  in “Airplane Mode” from “gate-to-gate,” including accessing the Internet on WiFi equipped planes. Unlike airlines whose WiFi systems are supplied to GoGo, the Row44 WiFi equipment aboard Southwest jets is satellite-based and can be used below 10,000′.]

Being Turned On

The biggest change is that you no longer have to turn off your smartphone, tablet, or laptop at any time during the flight. This change makes sense in light of that fact a third or so of airline passengers appear to deliberately or accidentally leave their devices turned on throughout the flight.

In-Flight WiFi, Please!

Even if you can leave your PED on during the entire flight, you still won’t be able to connect to the Internet if the aircraft you are aboard is not equipped with a WiFi system.  In our May 24, 2013 story, “In-Flight WiFi? Why Not?,” we noted that The New York Times had reported that WiFi was available on less than 25 percent of U.S. domestic flights.

The 10,000’ Altitude Rule

As far as the FAA is concerned, if an airline’s policy permits it, smartphones, tablets, and laptops can now be powered on below 10,000’ regardless of whether the aircraft is taking off, in level flight, or landing.

But if on-board WiFi systems are not activated below that altitude, you won’t be able to access the in-flight entertainment system or the Internet. And most such systems will have to be updated to allow WiFi connections at those lower altitudes.

In-Flight Entertainment

Southwest Airlines planes don’t have video screens built into seatbacks or installed elsewhere. However, on its WiFi-enabled aircraft, passengers can use their WiFi capable devices that have a Web browser, such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, to connect to the airline’s entertainment system and watch TV and movies.

But bandwidth issues prevent streaming video to PEDS from services like Netflix whether one is flying on Southwest or an airline that use Gogo in-flight WiFi.

Ala Airplane Mode, Please!

Despite the rule change that lets you leave your device powered up, you still must use your cellphone or tablet in “Airplane Mode.”

That means that you won’t be able to make phone calls or connect to the Internet over a cellular carrier’s network.

You’ll only be able to access the Internet in-flight if the aircraft is WiFi enabled.

No Power to The People

Few airliner seats include power outlets into which passengers can plug in and charge PEDs. This will to some extent limit the use of those devices during an entire flight, particularly long haul international flights that be ten or more hours in duration.

Don’t Call Me, I Can’t Call You

During an interview on KQED Radio’s “Forum,” FAA Administrator Huerta said that from his agency’s perspective there was no technology-based reason why the FAA would bar you from making or receiving phone calls during a flight.

But the FAA doesn’t regulate phone calls. The FCC does, and it hasn’t adopted rules that would permit them. [November 21, 2013 update: Today the Associated Press reported that the FCC announced that at its December 12, 2013 meeting it will consider a proposal to allow airline passengers to use cellphones to make calls during flights.]

Text is Next

According to this report from travel news Website, Gogo offers in-flight text messaging and voice calling from smartphones for those traveling on “business jets” who uses it’s “Gogo’s Text & Talk” app (free for iOS and Android devices). Gogo expects that text messaging, but not voice calling, will be available early next year on commercial airlines which use its WiFi system.

Forget FaceTime and Skype

Skype photoWhat about FaceTime or Skype audio or video calls which use VoIP (“Voice over Internet Protocol”)? Can you make those with the greatest of ease while flying through the air?

Probably not.

Even though the FCC doesn’t currently have in place regulations that ban in-flight VoIP calls, with “Airplane Mode” turned on you can’t make them over a cellular carrier’s data network, and it’s unlikely that an on-board WiFi system would have enough bandwidth to allow you to do so, as is the case with of Southwest Airline’s in-flight WiFi service.

In a “chat session,” I was told by Gogo (which provides in-flight WiFi to several airlines other than Southwest) that its airline customers had requested that VoIP calls be blocked.

This Is Your Captain Speaking!

Despite the new “always on in-flight” rule, the FAA allows an aircraft captain to direct passengers to turn off all personal electronic devices at any time.

So unless you want free room and board in a federal jail, do not stand up and yell “I Know My Rights (to use my PED)!” if the captain or other crew member tells you to turn off your gizmo.

Upright and Locked Positions

During takeoff and landings, seatbacks must be brought to a full upright position, and seatback and in-the-seat-arm tray tables must be stowed away.

So unless you want to hold your tablet in your hand—which may be neither convenient nor easy if you have it connected to a wireless keyboard—you’ll only be using it when the tray table is available.

Stow It!

As I mentioned in last Friday’s review of iPad covers, cases and keyboards, an iPad that is attached loosely to a cover or case with magnets could take off on its own “flight” through the  cabin if the aircraft hits turbulence. The same thing could happen during a bouncing, bumpy landing.

So it’s probably a good idea to stow your tablet in a secure place, such as under the seat in front of you, during those phases of the flight, even if you aren’t required to do so as you must if you are using a laptop computer.

What are some of the “smart” ways that can you keep yourself amused when you’reSkymall disconnected from your “smart” device during flight? Look out the plane’s window at the landscape below. Read a book. Thumb through the airline’s in-flight magazine.

Or browse the SkyMall catalog and pick out new e-gadgets you to buy once the “All Clear to Connect” command is given by the cabin crew.


Click here to read all of the information on the new FAA PED rules posted on the agency’s Website.

Listen to the discussion of the new PED rule, cell phone voice calls, in-flight Wi-Fi, and the air travel experience in general, by FAA Administrator Huerta and other travel experts, on KQED’S “Forum.”

You can hear more on PEDs and other travel news by listening to L.A. Times Travel Editor, and travel experts Gary Ardnt, Chris Christensen, and Jen Leo or watching the Google Hangout for the November 6, 2013 episode of “This Week in Travel.

Get more travel news! Subscribe to our e-mail updates!

Back to Front Page Stories Explore This Blog

Last updated by at .

Previous post:

Next post: