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New study puts pressure on FAA's takeoff/landing electronics ban

A study of airplane passengers’ in-flight use of portable electronic devices estimates that air travelers are losing millions of hours of “disrupted technological activity” because of the Federal Aviation Administration’s ban on such usage during takeoffs and landings. The FAA is currently conducting a review of that ban, but has not yet made any changes to it.

The study by DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development is unique because it is based not on survey responses from airline passengers, but on actual observation of them by field researchers who walk through the aisles to see who is doing what with what kind of devices. The latest study involved observations of 1,688 passengers on 23 domestic weekday flights.

The report said that the use of portable devices “is surging as travelers grow more dependent on tablets and other sophisticated devices.” It noted that at the random points in time when they were being observed, more than 35 percent of air travelers were using such devices in-flight — compared with just 17.6 percent in the group’s 2010 study. It estimated that as many as 90 percent of passengers use electronic devices at some point during their flight.

The most dramatic growth is in the use of tablets and e-readers. “At any given point, more than one in nine passengers is using a tablet,” the report noted. “The rising prevalence of these devices marks the most fundamental shift in the way passengers allocate time on flights since our first report was issued in 2009.”

The report said passenger activity is rapidly shifting away from “less sophisticated devices” like smart phones and music players to things with larger screens like tablets and e-readers, with a corresponding increase in “visually oriented tasks” by users while in flight, such as watching visual entertainment, playing games or using the Internet. “The long periods in which these devices can be used between battery charges is another advantage,” the report observed. The use of such devices has also spread quickly from business travelers to leisure travelers in the past few years, the report noted.

Summarizing the above trends and observations of usage by its field teams, the group estimated the total period of “disrupted technological activity” during takeoffs and landings at 105.8 million hours during 2012 — i.e., the amount of time that all domestic airline passengers would have been using their devices if not for the FAA’s ban. The report also observed that there is “a growing consensus that the ban has no tangible safety benefits.” Although this study didn't examine the scientific basis for the ban, “it is safe to say that support for the ban’s continuation, both among technicians familiar with avionic systems, policymakers, and the public, has dropped sharply,” the report said.

Because “a rapidly growing number of people place a premium on technology use while en route, the FAA should carefully consider the implications that the ban has on ‘lost tech time’ during takeoff and landing,” the report concluded. “In the absence of clear evidence that the ban provides any meaningful safety benefits, it is time to follow an aggressive timetable for lifting the ban and allowing passengers more time to ‘power up.’”

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