The regulations put in place in the 1960s have never gone away—turn off all electronic devices during airplane takeoff or the plane's navigation system is at risk. That was before cell phones, before laptops, and definitely before reading tablets like Kindle or an iPad.
The Federal Aviation Administration has been working for over a year to relax the regulations, at the urging of several senators led by Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri. The New York Times reported in March that FAA officials were under "tremendous pressure" to loosen the rules. The agency has formed an advisory committee to study the issue, and our friends at Politico (subscribers only) report that recommendations could be forthcoming at the end of the month. The new rule, should it appear, would keep the ban on cell phones.
There are several issues to consider in updating this obviously outdated rule: First, there's the interference factor. There is no hard evidence that Kindles or iPads affect a plane's electronics, but it would behoove the FAA to be careful on this one and learn exactly what impact those devices have, or at least offer specific scientific data about the actual interference. Second, there's the policing factor for the flight attendants. A cell phone is not OK, but an iPad in "airplane mode" could be fine. Would they be required to check every device on board to be sure it is in the correct mode before takeoff? Third, there is the technology advancement factor. Who knows what the next devices will be and how they would be treated under a new regulation. Given the plodding nature of government, it wouldn't be of any use to anyone to require the new rule to be updated every time there is a new technological innovation.
What makes sense here? What are the real dangers of electronic devices on board an aircraft? What is the difference between a cell phone and a laptop in airplane mode in terms of navigation interference? Is it a question of scale (i.e., one person's iPad is OK, but 200 iPad's would really screw things up)? What are the responsibilities of the flight attendants? What are the responsibilities of the passengers? How should the FAA handle this pressing question of customer satisfaction in a sensible and safe way?