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FAA furloughs delay decision on electronic devices

While travelers hope for a speedy decision regarding the use of personal electronics in flight, the government shutdown has turned the process into the regulatory equivalent of a 56k modem. With non-essential Federal Aviation Administration staffers currently furloughed, all passengers can do is watch and wait.

Hopes of a change in policies that were formulated decades before the rise of e-readers and smartphones were raised last week when a 28-member advisory panel delivered its recommendations to the agency. Since the government shutdown began Oct. 1, however, those recommendations remain in limbo.

“The FAA has received the report and its guidance related to the possibility of expanded use of personal electronic devices on aircraft,” said FAA in a statement. “However, the FAA staff that would advise the Administrator on this report, as well as work on the potential execution or implementation of the guidance, are furloughed.”

Translation: Until the government officially reopens, the FAA will neither release the committee’s report nor develop a response to its recommendations.

“We’re restricted to working on what are called ‘life and limb’ issues right now,” said Tim Shaver, a manager of avionics maintenance for the FAA who served on the committee. “Anything associated with any decisions [on personal electronics] is on hold.”

That hold will be lifted when the government reopens, but it’s unclear how long after that FAA will begin making a decision or when any changes to existing policies will be implemented. Prior to the government shutdown, it was hoped that new guidelines would be implemented sometime next year.

For tech-dependent travelers, there’s still hope that that could happen. FAA spokesperson Laura Brown said it’s likely that the committee’s report doesn’t recommend the sort of rulemaking that requires multiple steps, including publishing a proposed rule, seeking public comments and publishing a final rule with a future implementation date.

In this case, said Brown, “there isn’t a constrained timeframe. The only constraint will be how quickly the carriers are willing to move forward.”

Given the competitive pressures in the industry and the high priority many fliers place on having “always on” access, airlines are unlikely to dawdle. Implementation will also be eased by the fact that the FAA is unlikely to require airlines to conduct individual tests on every combination of device and airplane model as has been previously proposed.

Instead, carriers may be able to provide data from previous tests, including those involved in installing inflight Wi-Fi systems, that have already demonstrated aircraft tolerance to outside interference, according to The Wall Street Journal.

And the pressure to act quickly isn’t limited to the industry itself as the consensus grows that the current rules prohibiting the use of personal electronics are outdated, raising the ire of both the flying public and government officials.

“Public safety guidelines that are largely ignored and don’t pass the commonsense test undermine other rules that actually keep passengers safe,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. "I look forward to reviewing the advisory committee’s final report, and I am confident that it will recommend long overdue changes to the PED rules.”

When she — and others — will have that opportunity depends entirely on ending the current stalemate on reopening the government.

In the meantime, FAA indicates that it "will post the report and issue guidelines when the lapse in funding is resolved.” 

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.