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Do the FAA's rules make flying with electronic devices more dangerous?

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Electronic devices in-flight iPad
Electronic devices in-flight iPad

Nick Bilton at The New York Times writes that the Federal Aviation Administration's controversial rules prohibiting the use of electronic devices on aircraft have consequences that go far beyond traveler frustration. Bilton writes that "over the last year, flying with phones and other devices has become increasingly dangerous," and that the FAA is partly to blame; he points out a number of incidents involving panicked police responses — including Alec Baldwin's Words With Friends episode that saw the actor kicked off a plane — and suggests that such unnecessary responses could be avoided if the rules were updated.

"Dealing with the FAA on this topic is like arguing with a stubborn teenager."

The FAA has been slow to review its rules prohibiting the use of electronic devices on aircraft, despite evidence that suggests they pose no risk to flights. And public frustration over the rules has led Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and the FCC to urge the FAA to action. Bilton, who previously commissioned his own series of radiation tests that poked holes in the FAA's rules, and has exposed the agency's opaque reasoning for its policies in the past, writes that "the agency has no proof that electronic devices can harm a plane's avionics." Still, he writes, the agency "perpetuates such claims, spreading irrational fear among the millions of people who fly within the United States each year."

Bilton fears that it won't just be the police responding to the specious threat of cellphone use on planes. "There will eventually be an episode on a plane in which someone is seriously harmed as a result of a device being on during takeoff," he writes. "It will be because one passenger harms another, believing they are protecting the plane from a Kindle, which creates less electromagnetic emissions than a calculator."

The FCC announced in August that it will form a committee to study its aircraft electronics rules, but said that the effort would not produce any research results until March of next year. It's also a limited affair — the committee won't be reviewing the use of cellphones for voice communications.