Lentis/Airline Passengers and Portable Electronics

The revised FAA Portable Electronic Device (PED) regulation as of November 2013.


Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) have become integral in our daily lives and their use in airline cabins is at an all-time high. This pressure from consumers has prompted the FAA to review its 1963 policy regarding the use of PEDs on United States airlines. On October 31, 2013, the FAA ruled to allow PED use under 10,000 feet, provided an airline can prove such devices do not interfere with the airplane or jeopardize the safety of the flight. [1]

This reversal provides key insights into the social interface of technology. First, there are the events leading up to the policy reversal. One of the main events is summarized here in a news excerpt showcasing SNL season 37 Episode 9, in which high profile celebrity, Alec Baldwin, was kicked off a plane for refusing to stop using his PED on the tarmac. This, and other events, show the complexities and nuances of shaping public opinion toward technology use.

The second societal implications are seen in the aftermath of this policy reversal. This policy change has the potential to affect the cabin dynamic and interactions between passengers, crew, and each other. This change has snowballed into other organizations as well, such as the FCC, who is now investigating whether cell phone use in flight should be the airlines' policy decision.[2] These upcoming changes will affect how technology is used on airplanes and have repercussions in cabin dynamics and unwritten etiquette.

Radio Technical Commission for AeronauticsEdit

The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) is a private nonprofit advisory group founded in 1935. The RTCA provides technical consulting for airline regulators like the FAA.[3] Four RTCA special committees have studied and reported on PED use by passengers during commercial flights.

RTCA report DO-119 was released in May 1963. It summarized the results of limited tests of personal radio devices in passenger aircraft. The report recognized that some commonly available PEDs like radios were designed to produce strong signals which could interfere with avionics. It recommended that the FAA test for harmful interference before approving any PEDs for in-flight usage and to use prudence in their determinations. Subsequent reports echoed that recommendation and cautioned that PED use during critical phases of flight like takeoff and landing was an unacceptable risk for commercial carriers.[4]

PED Use in the CockpitEdit

Airline passengers are questioning restrictions on PED use more than ever, now that the public relies on these devices daily.[5][6] In December 2011, American Airlines received FAA approval for pilots to use iPads in lieu of paper charts during flights. [7] The introduction of iPads into cockpits caused the public to question the established regulations. Passengers didn't believe that PED use was as dangerous as they were being told.

The FAA responded by showing that iPads used by American Airlines pilots had been extensively tested for interference with GPS, IIS, communication equipment, and other avionics for the specific aircraft in American's fleet. Further, the FAA stated that the detrimental effects of two PEDs could not be credibly compared to an entire passenger compartment full of them.

Lifting of PED RestrictionsEdit

Aviation Rulemaking Committee on Portable ElectronicsEdit

Shortly after the introduction of iPads to American Airlines cockpits, the FAA formed an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) on PEDs. The ARC was tasked with recommending new policies to expand the use of PEDs on airplanes, which differed from the mission of RTCA advisory committees. Where the RTCA committees had consistently cautioned the FAA that PED use remained too hazardous to allow during takeoff and landing, the ARC was created to recommend rules for allowing use of PEDs during those phases of flight, which indicated the change in the FAA's priorities.

On October 31, 2013, the FAA lifted the general restriction on PED use during critical phases of flight on the recommendation of the ARC. Air carriers must submit to interference tests before the FAA will approve their fleets for expanded PED use.[8]

Dissent From the ARC RecommendationEdit

Recommendation 10, Method 2 from the ARC allows airlines to submit to the FAA their test data for fleet approval on an at-will basis. If some airlines submit and others do not, non-standardized PED rules will emerge across commercial carriers. Five representatives to the ARC from four organizations dissented to this central measure of the recommendation: Air Line Pilots Association, International; Association of Flight Attendants-CWA; National Association of Airline Passengers; and the Airline Passenger Experience Association. Each of these organizations have constituents on planes during flights, and are concerned with the practical aspects of passenger and crew safety.[9]

In their dissent, these representatives quote from the 1996 RTCA report:

...the possibility of interference to aircraft navigation and information systems during critical phases of flight, e.g., takeoff and landing, should be viewed as potentially hazardous and an unacceptable risk for aircraft involved in passenger-carrying operations.

Rollout of ChangeEdit

On November 1st, 2013, Jetblue flight 2302 from JFK to Buffalo, NY became the first flight to legally allow the use of PEDs below 10,000 feet.[10] Delta was approved for use the same day, however, in less than two weeks, nearly every mainland U.S. carrier is approved for PED use gate-to-gate.[11] Anything that gives an airline a competitive advantage is immediately embraced in an industry known for low margins.

Social Media Field DayEdit

Social media outlets exploded after the regulatory change. Airlines, passengers, and even Amazon, took to Twitter to celebrate the campaign. Jetblue released the official #below10kfeet on Twitter, and Delta announced a contest in which the passenger with the best photo under the hashtag would win two first class round trip tickets.[12] Morgan Johnston, social media strategist at JetBlue, says it is important for Jetblue to be one of the first airlines to implement the new PED rule, as it provides advertising opportunities.[12]

Jetblue has a “So Fly” webpage where customers can post pictures from their flights. Before the regulation change, it would be illegal for Jetblue to post passenger pictures that were “illegally” taken below 10,000 feet. However, now with the change, dozens of such photos appear on the site [12].

Delta’s marketing team recreated the viral YouTube video “Lily’s Disneyland Surprise!” into ‘Lily’s Delta Surprise” as a part of their photo contest and marketing campaign.[12] The video appears here.

However, it’s not just the airlines that capitalized off the change. Amazon ran a one day promotion for 15% off all Kindle devices using the promo code “ThnksFAA” at checkout [13] Amazon was also on the regulatory board that initiated the change, meaning business is gained from the new regulations.

Virgin America even recreated its newly released viral musical safety video, ensuring all changesrelated to PEDs are in place.

What the Public Doesn't KnowEdit

Even though the public, media, and airlines advertise the change, there are still obstacles that the flying public may not notice because of the advertisements from the mainland carriers. Airline subsidiaries, such as American Eagle and Endeavor Air, operate more than half of U.S. commercial airline flights, and are, in most cases, still under review to implement the change.[14][15] A recent excerpt from a pre-flight briefing demonstrates:

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are pleased to inform you that Delta Air Lines has become the first airline to implement the expanded use of portable electronic devices (PEDS). However, this Delta Connection Flight, operated by Endeavor Air, does not yet have FAA approval for the expanded use of portable electronic devices. Mobile phones and other electronic devices must be turned off and stowed at this time. Thank you.[14]

Likewise, the restriction gets even fuzzier. For instance, on a flight from the U.S. to the Caribbean, a passenger may be allowed to read their Kindle on takeoff, but will have to turn it off if landing in a country whose aviation authority has different regulations.[16]

Cabin Atmosphere after ChangeEdit

The unwritten rules of cabin etiquette are constantly being adjusted as new technologies enter the cabin. Regarding PEDs, Jetblue flight attendant Bebe McGarry says, “It was really causing an unnecessary negative ambiance in the cabin, because you felt like you had to constantly say, ‘Turn it off, turn it off.’ ” This would cause passengers to get aggressive with the attendant. This diminishing respect does not help the passenger-attendant relationship should an emergency situation arise. For this reason, McGarry and other flight attendants praise the change as a step in the right direction. Now, “we’ll be more heard when we have to talk to them in regard to safety issues that are really pertinent,” says McGarry.[17]

However, as attendants are quick to celebrate the lift, others think the use of PEDs during safety critical phases of flight is something that should not be taken lightly. The use of PEDs from gate to gate raises many concerns over the safety of the flight, many of which have not fully materialized. for example, will passengers be attentive during the pre-flight safety demonstration or will they be engulfed in their mobile devices and music playing devices? These problems will undoubtedly need to be addressed in the near future, and as the regulation just rolled out, no one, note even the flight attendant, has the answers just yet. Stay tuned...

FCC Pressured to Lift Cell Phone BanEdit

Shortly after the FAA lifted its ban on PEDs, the FCC says it will no longer make determination on whether cell phone calls can be made in flight. It effectively allows the individual airlines to decide by giving them the option of installing an Airborne Access System in the cabin that will direct all communications from a passenger's device to a wireless commercial network.[18] This shows that the FCC is preemptively avoiding the pressures of public opinion.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says the current ban on cell phone use is "outdated and restrictive."[19] However, a recent AP GfK poll shows that 78% of Americans who fly four or more flights a year are against in-flight calls.[19] This new responsibility has put the burden of policy decision on the airlines. Delta has already stated in a press release that it will still not allow in-flight voice communication if the FCC proposal passes, citing customer feedback and a negative customer experience.[20]The FCC will review and decide on the proposal on December 12, 2013. If the proposal passes, the airlines will be responsible for their cabin atmosphere. [2] The passengers are watching.


Public Opinion, Not Safety, Dictates RegulationsEdit

Passenger's using PEDs on flights has been a topic of discussion since the 1960s. Previous studies and committees determined that their use during a flight was an unnecessary risk that could cause airplane accidents. This was the stance taken by regulatory committees for almost 50 years, but it was not until modern day technologies became a staple in people's daily lives that we saw an increase in demand for PED use on airplane flights. In the months leading up to the FAA's decision to allow PED use under 10,000 feet, 99% of airline passengers brought PEDs onboard. [21]

As these electronic devices became more prominent, the demand for their use on airplanes increased, and public opinion began to show a desire to have these electronics permitted. This increased public awareness caused the FAA to announce its intention to reevaluate the rule. Here, it is the opinion of the public that caused the FAA to change its regulatory policies. There was no new information or studies indicating that the use of PEDs had become safe on the commercial airlines, but rather public opinion dictated that it was time to change the regulations.

This is seen in other social contexts as well. Tanning beds are used by over 1 million people per day in the U.S. [22], yet federal regulations largely only apply to manufacturers, and mostly only require warning labels or basic protection (such as eye wear, emergency stop buttons, and accurate timers). [23] Since public opinion considers tanning beds desirable, the regulations lag behind, despite strong evidence that tanning has significant health risks. [24]

Another example is the SOPA and PIPA regulations proposed in 2012. The goal was to protect consumers from theft and to maintain intellectual property, but a well-organized internet campaign changed public opinion and the regulations never made it past Congress. [25]

Perceived Risk, Not Actual Risk, Determine ActionsEdit

Before the FAA changed the rules about PED use, 30% of airline passengers left their PEDs on during the flight.[21] This shows that the perceived risk of PED use is not high enough to convince people to turn their devices off. This is summarized by a quote from Alec Baldwin in his SNL skit:

"You don't believe that, do you Seth? Would you really get on an airplane that flew thirty thousand feet in the air if you thought one Kindle Switch could take it down? C'mon!"

The airline passengers do not believe that there is risk involved in using electronic devices on airplanes, despite the fact that multiple studies from the FAA say there is. Instead, the risk that the people perceive is what drove their decision to leave their electronic devices on, as it was not a high enough priority to be of consequence.

This is seen in other social contexts as well, with a prominent example being roller coasters. Roller coasters are advertised as thrill rides, causing many people ride them for the adrenaline rush, or causing other people to be very afraid of them, a phenomenon called coaster phobia. [26] However, according to the Consumer Public Safety Commission, the odds of a fatal accident occurring on a roller coaster are 1 in 300 million, while the odds of a fatal accident occurring in the bathtub are 1 in 11,000. [27] Thus, we see a significant difference in the risk that is perceived by people, which greatly influences their actions, when compared to the actual risks.

Another instance that this occurs is in the smoking industry, but the study of the perceived risks versus actual risks will be left for another chapter, as the intricacies and nuances are too complex to be captured here.


  1. Greco, Kristie. (October 2013). "Press Release – FAA to Allow Airlines to Expand Use of Personal Electronics". Retrieved from https://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=15254
  2. a b FCC.(November 2013). "Q&A On Proposals to Expand Consumer Access to Inflight Mobile Services". Retrieved from http://www.fcc.gov/document/qa-proposals-expand-consumer-access-inflight-mobile-services
  3. RTCA.(2012). "Mission & History". Retrieved from http://www.rtca.org/content.asp?pl=49&sl=117&contentid=117
  4. Strauss, Graham. "Portable Electronic Devices Onboard Commercial Aircraft: Assessing the Risks". Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved from http://www.next-up.org/pdf/Carnerie_Mellon_University_thesis_William_Strauss_Portable_Electronic_Device_Onboard_Aircraft_Assessing_Risks.pdf
  5. Bilton, Nick. (November 2011). "Disruptions: Fliers Must Turn Off Devices, but It’s Not Clear Why". The New York Times. Retrieved from http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/disruptions-fliers-must-turn-off-devices-but-its-not-clear-why/?_r=1
  6. McCartney, Scott. (March 2012). "'Turn Off All Electronic Devices:' And What Happens if You Don't". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970204781804577267304080904804
  7. Bilton, Nick. (December 2011). "F.A.A. Approves iPads in Cockpits, but Not for Passengers". The New York Times. Retrieved from http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/14/f-a-a-approves-ipads-in-cockpits-but-not-for-passengers/
  8. ARC.(September 2013). "A Report from the Portable Electronic Devices Aviation Rulemaking Committee to the Federal Aviation Administration". Retrieved from https://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/ped/media/PED_ARC_FINAL_REPORT.pdf
  9. AFA.(October 2013). "AFA Contributes to FAA Panel - Recommends Safe, Managed Expansion of PED Use". Retrieved from http://www.afacwa.org/afa_contributes_to_faa_panel_recommends_safe_managed_expansion_of_ped_use
  10. Jetblue. (2013, Nov 1). Celebrating Our First PED-Approved Flight. [Video file]. Retrieved from vimeo.com
  11. Delta.(October 2013). Delta First to Submit Plan to Allow Customer Use of Portable Electronic Devices Below 10,000 Feet as Early as Nov. 1. www.news.delta.com
  12. a b c d Weissman, Saya. (2013). “New In-Flight Device Rules Are Marketing Opportunity” Retrieved from http://digiday.com/brands/jetblue-delta-amazon-faa/
  13. On Behalf of Current and Future Kindle Owners Everywhere—Thank You, FAA. Amazon Press Release. Retrieved from http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1871800
  14. a b Friedrich, Jeff. (2013). Airlines are Misleading Passengers About New Electronic-Device Rules. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/11/06/faa_personal_electronics_devices_rule_changes_won_t_affect_all_passengers.html
  15. RAA. (2013). Regional Airline Association Home Page. Retrieved from www.raa.org
  16. FAA.(2013). "Portable Electronics Frequently Asked Questions". Retrieved from https://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/ped/faq/
  17. Johnston, Katie. (November 4 2013). “End of Device Ban Lifts Burden for Flight Attendants”. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/11/04/flight-attendants-rejoice-lifting-electronic-device-restriction/0Ub5OZnoXn9tGQF5f1liEK/story.html
  18. FCC. (2013). FAQ on Proposals to Expand Consumer Access to Inflight Mobile Services. www.fcc.gov
  19. a b Mayerowitz, Scott.(December 2013)."AP-GfK Poll: Frequent fliers hate idea of in-flight calls; government regulators prepare to debate issue". Retrieved from http://ap-gfkpoll.com/featured/ap-gfk-poll-frequent-fliers-hate-idea-of-in-flight-calls-government-regulators-prepare-to-debate-issue
  20. Delta. (2013). "Frequently Asked Questions - Portable Electronic Devices." Retrieved from http://news.delta.com/index.php?s=18&item=176
  21. a b (May 2013). "Most U.S. Flyers Brought Portable Electronic Devices on Planes in the Last Year; Nearly 30 Percent Accidentally Left Them Turned On". Business Wire. Retrieved from http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20130509005878/en
  22. Whitmore SE, Morison, WL Potten CS, Chadwick C. Tanning Salon Exposure and Molecular Alterations. J Am Acad Dermatol 2001;44:775-80.
  23. FDA. (2013). "Subchapter J--Radiological Health". CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Retrieved from http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?FR=1040.20
  24. Polsky, David. (October 2013). "Skin Cancer Facts". The Skin Cancer Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts
  25. Stop Online Piracy Act of 2011, H.R. Rep. No. 3261, 112th Cong., 1st Sess.(2011).Retrieved from http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/pdf/112%20HR%203261.pdf
  26. Fritscher, Lisa. (August 2009). "Roller Coaster Phobia". Retrieved from http://phobias.about.com/od/phobiaslist/a/coasterphobia.htm
  27. Ask the Odds. (2013). "What Are the Odds of Dying on a Roller Coaster?" Retrieved from http://www.asktheodds.com/death/roller-coaster-odds/