What Frequent Travelers Need to Know About the New FAA Regulations and In-Flight Wi-Fi Systems

By Jonathan Spira on 31 October 2013
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In-flight Internet on an American Airlines 777-300ER

In-flight Internet on an American Airlines 777-300ER

The new FAA guidelines for the use of electronic devices on aircraft brought great joy to frequent flyers, device manufacturers, and flight attendants but, while devices may be turned on during taxi, takeoff, and landing, what it will be capable of doing will vary both by airline and the Wi-Fi system on the aircraft.

The timetable for implementing the new rules will also vary by airline as not all carriers will immediately be able to allow devices to be on below 10,000 feet.  The FAA said it expected many airlines to certify their aircraft for the new rules by the end of the year.  But some airlines are racing to be first to offer passengers this new benefit.  Delta Air Lines said it would be ready by Friday, pending FAA approval, and JetBlue indicated it might be ready by late Thursday.

Getting FAA approval is the first step and most if not all modern commercial aircraft should qualify.  At that point, passengers’ devices will be able to remain on and passengers can use them – with voice and data functionality turned off, e.g. airplane mode – from gate to gate.

If an aircraft has in-flight Wi-Fi, the new FAA regulations will allow that service to be on.  But now all systems will work when the aircraft is on the ground.  Gogo, which is the dominant in-flight Internet company in the U.S., uses a system that connects to cell towers on the ground and it is not designed to function below 10,000 feet.  This means that the carriers that use its service, including American Airlines, which was the first airline to offer domestic in-flight Internet, as well as Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, US Airways, and Virgin America, won’t be able to offer gate-to-gate service.

Several domestic airlines, including JetBlue and Southwest, use an in-flight Internet provider that uses a satellite-based service instead of an air-to-ground system, and these systems are capable, if so configured, to work on the tarmac and during takeoff and landing.

United Airlines, which uses Gogo on its p.s. transcontinental flights from New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles, primarily uses Panasonic Avionics, which offers a satellite-based system that should work on the ground.  American, which is primarily a Gogo customer, uses Panasonic Avionics on its new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, which primarily service overseas routes, so passengers on that aircraft will also have Wi-Fi before taking off.

However, having the ability to turn on Wi-Fi while on the ground and doing so are two different things.  Several airlines have expressed concern that passengers might try to use their laptops, which have to be stowed during takeoff and landing even per the new FAA rules.  In addition, because takeoff and landing are the most critical phases of flight, some safety experts (as well as this writer) are concerned that passengers listening to music through earphones might not hear instructions in the event of an emergency.

Finally, the new rules may cause some confusion, at least at the beginning, as the FAA only has jurisdiction in the United States.  Many countries still don’t let passengers turn their mobile phones on once the plane is on the ground, while this has been permitted in the U.S. for almost a decade.  What other countries will do remains to be seen.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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