The Federal Aviation Administration is poised to retreat from a longstanding policy that is widely flouted and has undermined public respect for flight safety instructions.
The agency is prepared to relax its ban on the use of electronic devices during airplane takeoffs and landings, and below 10,000 feet when a plane is in the air.
At least that's what The Wall Street Journal reported Friday, saying an FAA advisory panel has concluded the policy is outdated and should be revised.
We hope it is. It's been obvious to anyone who has flown in recent years, for example, that some airline passengers, by accident or conscious decision, fail to power off their portable devices as instructed by flight attendants.
Passenger surveys likewise confirm that a significant minority of travelers regularly break the rules, often inadvertently.
But if leaving on electronic devices at takeoffs and landings is truly dangerous, why hasn't such behavior created problems for pilots?
Well, apparently because both modern on-board technology and the portable devices that passengers carry on have advanced to the point that many experts believe the risk of interference is minimal or perhaps non-existent.
The FAA's advisory panel isn't expected to offer recommendations on cellphone use, the Journal reported, meaning only electronic readers, computers and other such devices would be affected. But even allowing greater use of those devices alone would be a major step toward saner regulation. And the Journal says the advisory panel believes cellphone use needs to be addressed as well.
The New York Times, which picked up the story, quoted an unnamed panel member who said smartphones may indeed be swept into a recommendation for "wider use of devices during takeoff and landing, including tablets and smartphones used only for data (like e-mail) but not talking."
Obviously passenger convenience should never be allowed to trump flight safety. But excessive caution used to justify overly restrictive rules can be a problem, too, because it breeds public resentment and resistence -- which is the situation that exists today.
The Atlantic's James Fallows, a private pilot as well as journalist, has described the admonition to power off all electronic devices as "pure theater," noting that "on all 'non-airline big aircraft' flights, like political charters or corporate jets, people leave their 'devices' on the whole time, and it never causes a problem."
We wouldn't go so far as to describe the power-off routine as "theater," but it does appear to need updating, and we're encouraged that the FAA is prepared to finish the job.
-The Denver Post, June 24