Momentum Builds to Ease In-Flight Wi-Fi Restrictions for Passengers

By Bryce Baschuk  

Oct. 1 --A Federal Aviation Administration panel's recommendation to permit use of portable electronic devices during takeoffs and landings could lead the agency to ease its rules on passenger Wi-Fi use below 10,000 feet, travel analysts said.

On Sept. 30, the FAA's Portable Electronic Devices Advisory and Rulemaking Committee (PED ARC) recommended that airline passengers should be permitted to use their portable electronic devices at all times during flights as long as data capabilities are switched off. If the FAA were to adopt such a change, it could lead to further rulemakings to permit airline passengers to access on-board Wi-Fi signals during takeoff and landings, Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Hudson Crossing, told Bloomberg BNA.

“I'm sure that if the FAA relaxes its restrictions on devices then the next initiative will be to try to get Internet use permitted below 10,000 feet,” Harteveldt said. “Gate-to-gate Internet access is really what travelers want. They don't want to be cut off.”

The FAA has historically restricted the use of certain portable electronic devices on flights below 10,000 feet because of concerns that the radio frequency signals they transmit could interfere with aircraft communications, navigation, flight control and electronic equipment. Even so, nearly a third of adult airline passengers who carry portable electronic devices said they have accidentally left their devices on and in cellular mode during a flight, according to a survey conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the Airline Passenger Experience Association.

FAA Decision Pending

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta must now decide whether to change the agency's policy regarding in-flight device usage rules. An FAA spokesman was unable respond to requests for comment on Oct. 1 due to the federal government's lapse in appropriations.

Doug Johnson, the vice president of technology policy at CEA and a PED ARC member, commended the committee for “initiating this serious and comprehensive examination of the issues involved in additional use of consumer electronics on airplanes,” according to a news release. “We now urge the FAA's immediate review, consideration and pursuit of the advisory committee's recommendations.”

A spokesman for Airlines for America said in an e-mail statement the group is aware that customers want to use their personal electronic devices for longer during flights. “We look forward to working with the FAA to safely implement processes and procedures that would enable that to happen.”

Gogo Inc., a company that provides on-board Wi-Fi services, would support a future FAA order that permits Wi-Fi use during takeoffs and landings, said Ash ElDifrawi, Gogo's chief commercial officer.

“We are interested in having people connected all the time at high speeds,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “So we would be very supportive if the FAA finds a very safe way to allow people to remain connected during that entire time.”

In-Flight Wi-Fi Demand

“People want to be connected all the time and fairly seamlessly, and for a lot of flights the period of time from when you get on the plane and take off and then the other end of it can be a meaningful and significant part of the flying time,” ElDifrawi said. On-board Wi-Fi companies like Gogo, Qualcomm Inc., and others can operate Wi-Fi devices at all times during a flight but engineer their devices not to transmit Wi-Fi service when the plane is below 10,000 feet.

The Federal Communications Commission is already considering ways to expand passengers' access to mobile broadband in the 14.0-14.5 GHz spectrum band. This year, the commission opened a rulemaking to determine whether it should permit companies to develop air to ground mobile services that would permit airplane passengers to access data networks with their consumer devices in the same way they would on the ground.

It's unlikely that the FCC will change or amend its current ban on the in-flight use of cell phones for voice calls in the near future, Harteveldt said. The commission has prohibited in-flight use of cell phones that access the 800 MHz spectrum band due to concerns that their use could interfere with terrestrial wireless networks.

There isn't much demand for in-flight cell phone use anyhow, Harteveldt said. “Plane cabins are stressful enough. Nobody wants to be stuck next to a chatterbox jabbering on about whatever the topic may be.”

In March 2007, the FCC terminated a proceeding that would have potentially lifted the ban, citing insufficient data regarding network interference statistics. Under current rules, airlines would have to apply for an exemption to FCC rules in order to permit in-flight cell phone use.

Voice Calls Banned

“What's interesting in Europe and elsewhere where in-flight voice calls have been supported is that there is almost no usage,” Harteveldt said.

Some airline companies in the U.K. and parts of Europe have installed devices in airplanes that permit passengers to use their cell phones to send and receive calls and text messages from their cell phones. Companies like AeroMobile and OnAir transmits passengers' cell phone calls and text messages via a satellite link from equipment installed into certain airplanes.