ANALYSIS: Future policies on PED usage still unclear

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Every year, more aircraft cabins transform from remote environments to centres of communications for passengers looking to use wi-fi, watch live television and, in some cases, place telephone calls and use electronic text messaging.

Recent statistics from the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) and Consumer Electronics Association show that 99% of adult passengers said they brought portable electronic devices (PEDs) on board while traveling, with 69% using them during the flight.

As new connections emerge, passengers in the USA have started asking why these devices are limited until the aircraft reaches 10,000ft (3,048m). Simultaneously, aircraft operators are asking what steps they would have to take to allow the devices to be used through all phases of flight while staying compliant with FAA standards.

As these devices become more popular and more models are introduced, the regulatory framework governing them has increased in complexity, as has validating the risk of interference with aircraft systems.

To address some of these questions, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set up an advisory and rulemaking committee (ARC) to recommend how operators and regulatory bodies can safely permit usage of these devices and explore if they can be used safely through all phases of flight.

ARCING TOWARDS PROGRESS

More than a year later the ARC is still finalising its recommendations after requesting more time to look at the issues, but it is expected to submit them after wrapping up a final round of meetings this week.

Airlines and suppliers on the committee discussed their objectives at the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) expo in Anaheim on 9 September.

The FAA first announced it would form the ARC in August 2012, and the group’s 28 members have since attended meetings in Washington, D.C., as well as teleconferences.

The committee’s members include representatives from the FAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, the US Transportation Security Administration, the Air Line Pilots Association, the Federal Communications Commission, airlines like JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines and suppliers like Rockwell Collins and Thales.

The group was originally scheduled to complete talks by the end of July, but members requested more time to further address some topics, according to a request posted on the FAA’s website dated 12 July. The final meetings are scheduled to be completed by the end of September.

Regulatory filings show that remaining tasks included creating guidance materials for airlines to perform a safety risk assessment against critical flight systems, as well as drafting materials to help operators create policies for stowing PEDs if the regulations are relaxed and allow PED use throughout flight.

Several industry and regulatory bodies are eager to see the FAA adopt policies for expanded use of the devices. In the past few months, some members of Congress have said they would support legislation to expand the use of portable electronic devices if progress is not made in a timely manner. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has also shown support for wider use of electronic devices in flight, sending a letter to FAA administrator Michael Huerta in December explaining this position.

Members of the committee say taking more time to think about the recommendations was necessary due to the complexity of the issue.

“The committee feels that a thorough, well thought through approach was important for us to come up with, that if it wasn’t thorough or it wasn’t complete we weren’t meeting the ... goals that were put forward," says one ARC members on 9 September during APEX expo. “So this additional period wasn’t a delay tactic, it was to make absolutely sure that we had the best product that we could possibly put out.”

A RANGE OF REGULATIONS

As consumer technology has become more easy to use, policy governing use of PEDs on aircraft in the USA has followed a divergent path and has arguably become confusing.

The first regulations governing passengers' electronic devices date back to 1966 after a study conducted between 1958 and 1961 showed that FM radio receivers caused interference with some systems onboard, explained Michael Childers, Lufthansa Systems’ chief consultant, content and media strategy, during the panel presentation.

As more and more types of electronic devices began to hit the market, the FAA decided it would require too many resources to independently test each type of PED onboard an aircraft on its own, he explains. Therefore, the administration decided to delegate that authority to operators to determine that the devices do not interfere with aircraft systems, he says. Years later, airlines are still responsible for this oversight, with the FAA only providing guidance to airlines.

Since the FAA first made rules about how PEDs should be used, the industry has revisited the issue four times, Childers explains. But by the 1990s, the administration concluded there were too many different types of devices out there to keep up these activities. It recognised that the possibility of interference is caused by several factors including the types of devices, aircraft types and number of people using them.

This led to an FAA advisory circular that presents recommendations for each airline’s PED policy, and includes guidelines for storing the devices during critical phases of flight until the aircraft is above an altitude of 10,000 feet. While it is not a formal rule, the guidelines are reflected across airlines' individual policies today, with crew members responsible for enforcing each airlines' rules.

REALISING THE RISK

One of the main issues the ARC researched is how to quantify the risk of electromagnetic interference on avionics systems. Limited data has shown this to be exceedingly difficult, because aircraft instruments not working as expected could be due to a host of factors having nothing to do with interference from phones, says Capt. Chuck Cook, manager fleet programmes and technology at JetBlue Airways. Therefore, it is difficult to gauge how much of a risk is present in the overall assessment process.

“The documentation of EMI interference is a challenging one for a flight crew, because it could look or appear very similar to many other things that happen every day,” he says.

Despite this, Cook says that the risk from interference from these devices is still a real concern, even if the possibility of that risk could be remote. But the myriad factors that could contribute to interference has meant a lack of substantial data that draws a direct link between this interference and the devices.

“We did a lot of data analysis to try to find hard concrete reports, and honestly there are very, very few,” he says, noting that the industry has looked at four data sources, including data from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s aviation safety reporting system.

Delta Air Lines has researched PED risks as part of a study it commissioned to learn more about passengers’ preferences. The study was submitted to the FAA along with more than 150 other comments from individuals and companies.

That study says a review of maintenance defect reports since 2010 shows that pilots noted portable electronic devices were the possible source of discrepancies in flight equipment in three occasions. During that same time, mechanics had reported thatPEDs could be the origin of such interference in 24 instances.

In these 27 reports from mechanics and pilots, Delta was not able to confirm that PEDs were the source of the interference.

Although airlines have policies that require the devices to be turned off at the beginning and end of flights, nearly 30% of passengers say they have accidentally left a device turned on during a flight, shows the survey from APEX and the CEA. Twenty-one of these passengers said they put their devices on “airplane mode” rather than turning them completely off during the flight.

PASSENGER PREFERENCE

The jury is still out on whether the USA will allow in-flight telephone communications, an increasingly popular service with airlines based outside of the USA. Emirates, Qatar and Air France-KLM are just some of the airlines that have opted to allow passengers to use features of their mobile phones in flight.

The panel is not looking at voice communications, but says that it is considering other mobile capabilities, such as text messages and data usage.

While connectivity providers say they are seeing increased usage of these services, a recent survey of Delta frequent fliers had mixed views. About half of those surveyed were against allowing voice calls on flights, says Kirk Thornburg, chairman of the ARC and Delta Air Lines’ managing director of aviation safety and assurance.

“[In] our case, it came back about 2:1 against voice calls being desired by our passengers,” he says.

Public comments submitted to the FAA show that some opposition stems from passengers being wary of people holding long conversations on the telephone. OnAir and Aeromobile, the two major providers of GSM services, maintain that data shows most of these in-flight calls are short and usually last for only a few minutes.

The use of cellular voice data is still governed by a Federal Communications Commission regulation that bans cell phones’ 800 Mhz frequency in flight, however the FCC in the past year has opened rulemaking initiatives aiming at improving the quality of connectivity for consumers. Relaxing these rules would be a key step for connectivity providers to offer these services in the USA.

Kevin Rogers, chief executive of Aeromobile, expects to see new regulations that allow mobile usage in the USA by the end of 2014.

“The FCC [is] definitely interested in developing a regulation for mobile connectivity in aircraft, and the wheels are moving and we're involved with them,” he tells Flightglobal, adding, “It’s frustratingly slow, but I respect what they’re trying to do.”

In the meantime, passengers on flights may be able to use messaging via different means. For example, Gogo is launching a texting product that does not rely on GSM communications, which appeared first in the business aviation market but could come into play on commercial airlines as well.

At any rate, the types of devices passengers have brought on board are much different than those seen in the 1960s when the FAA first started looking at the legislation, and will likely evolve even further before new rules are in place to govern their use.