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Senator McCaskill grills FAA chief over 'arbitrary' electronic device restrictions

Senator McCaskill grills FAA chief over 'arbitrary' electronic device restrictions

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Senator McCaskill hearing
Senator McCaskill hearing

Senator Claire McCaskill (D, MO) has long spearheaded a campaign against the Federal Aviation Administration's rules banning the use of portable electronic devices on consumer aircraft, and in a Congressional hearing held last week, McCaskill stepped up her rhetoric. As the senator questioned (but mostly lectured) FAA administrator Michael Huerta, McCaskill said that the rules appear "to not be grounded in any kind of data or evidence whatsoever," and that "this is a great example of a rule that really is arbitrary at this point."

The FAA has been looking into relaxing rules on the use of electronic devices on consumer aircraft, but its proposed changes have proceded at a glacial pace. The agency began studying the issue last year, setting up an aviation rulemaking committee to investigate, but Huerta did not indicate how the committee might land on the subject or how quickly the rules may change. In the meantime, airline passengers are still required to shut off all of their portable electronic devices between the time of takeoff preparation and when their aircraft reaches an altitude of 10,000 feet.

"She was crying in her seat because she was sure she was gonna bring down that airplane."

Senator McCaskill has refined her stump speech on portable electronic device regulations, borrowing from previous statements on the subject to grill the FAA chief at last week's hearing. "In your rule, you actually say that it's about distraction and missing significant safety announcements," McCaskill said, holding up a copy of FAA regulations. "I've never had a flight attendant say put down your copy of War and Peace, which would be just as much of a distraction as reading War and Peace on a Kindle." The senator shared a story about a woman on one of her flights who, realizing she had left her phone turned on in the overhead compartment, was "crying in her seat because she was sure she was gonna bring down that airplane."

Such fears, as McCaskill and others have pointed out, are unfounded by any kind of scientific evidence that portable electronic devices are capable of interfering with the operations of an aircraft. Even fellow agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission, have urged the FAA to reconsider its outdated rules. During the same hearing, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said "we have never identified in our accident investigations or incident investigations where portable electronic devices in the cabin affected the safety of the flight." (Texting while flying, on the other hand, is a bigger concern for the NTSB.)

"If it's safe enough for the president of the United States, it's safe enough for the public."
Anecdotes aside, McCaskill sharpened her inquiry, demanding that Huerta make the rulemaking process open and to keep Congress updated. "If we're not going to be able to have a new rule by Christmas, I would really like something in writing from you on the record about what the problem would be," McCaskill said. "I am anxious for someone to document to me why there is any reason that the flying public should feel insecure about someone next to them who maybe hasn't turned off [their device] quickly enough. I don't think you realize the tension that's on an airplane around this."

"[Rules] only work if they're respected, and if the rationale for a rule is specious or arbitrary, it not only is frustrating for people who are impacted by the rule, it undermines every other rule that is promulgated by the government," McCaskill said. "If it's safe enough for the President of the United States, it's safe enough for the flying public."

"I think she may have a point."

The comments drew praise from McCaskill's colleagues in the hearing, including Senator Jay Rockefeller (D, WV), who said it was "a treasured five minutes" listening to her inquiry. "More than any human being on the face of the Earth you want this rule changed," Rockefeller said. "And I think she may have a point."

McCaskill has threatened legislation to remedy the situation if the FAA does not revise its rules expediently. "I'm giving the process a chance to work, but I want this rule changed before the end of the year," Senator McCaskill said in a statement provided to The Verge. "That's why I'm working with stakeholders to write legislation to change the rule independent of the FAA process — legislation we'll have ready before the end of spring."

The FAA's rulemaking committee report and recommendations are due in July.