McCaskill works to end in-flight electronics ban

The Federal Aviation Administration's electronics regulations have not been updated since 2006.
A Northwest Airlines employee marshals a plane before departure at the Columbia Regional Airport. Claire McCaskill is making plans to lessen restrictions on portable device usage. Maneater File Photo

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., announced recently she would begin drafting legislation to loosen restrictions on using portable electronic devices on airplanes.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires passengers turn off and stow all portable electronic devices — laptops, MP3 players, tablets and other items — when the plane is below 10,000 feet, saying the radio signals these devices emit may interfere with aircraft communications and flight control.

“There are still unknowns about the radio signals that portable electronic devices (PEDs) and cell phones give off,” the FAA wrote in a news release. “These signals, especially in large quantities and emitted over a long time, may unintentionally affect aircraft communications, navigation, flight control and electronic equipment.”

McCaskill first wrote to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in December, telling him the FAA should reconsider the electronic device restrictions, which she called outdated. The FAA allows pilots to have their flight manuals on tablet computers, yet passengers can only use their PEDs during some portions of the flight.

The FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Committee is examining the PED policy and will present its recommendations to the FAA in the summer, Huerta wrote in a response to McCaskill. The committee has until July 31 to report to the FAA.

McCaskill responded to Huerta on Thursday, saying she was worried that the ARC would not review the policy quickly enough and would begin to craft legislation.

“I am concerned that relying on the ARC to drive change on this issue creates the potential for the process to drag on indefinitely,” McCaskill wrote. “Ultimately, it will be up to the FAA, and you as its Administrator, to provide leadership, make a decision and compel the needed changes to the current rules.”

Before sending her second letter, McCaskill met with Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski on Feb. 27 to discuss changing the regulations. Genachowski also supports loosening the regulations.

“The Chairman and I agree on the need to work with the FAA, airlines, electronic device makers and other stakeholders to formulate commonsense policies, without compromising passenger safety," McCaskill said in a news release. "The idea that in-flight use of electronic devices for things like reading a book poses a threat to the safety of airline passengers is baseless and outdated.”

Genachowski urged the FAA to loosen PED restrictions in a letter he sent in December.

The FCC has banned cell phone use on airplanes since the 1990s. Although McCaskill wrote in her March 7 letter to Huerta that she is not advocating for in-flight cell phone use, Genachowski’s letter addresses all mobile devices.

“This review comes at a time of tremendous innovation, as mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives,” Genachowski wrote. “They empower people to stay informed and connected with friends and family, and they enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness.”

The FAA’s current PED policy was enacted in 2006. These regulations updated an older PED ban from 2000.

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