New F.A.A. rules on use of electronics could be tricky to enforce

On a future airline flight, you might be able to read that latest e-book or listen to a podcast during takeoff. Current regulations restrict the use of portable electronics at low altitudes but the rules are under review. According to the New York Times, the F.A.A. is meeting this week to finalize some lighter restrictions:

 The guidelines are expected to allow reading e-books or other publications, listening to podcasts, and watching videos, according to several of the panel’s members who requested anonymity because they could not comment on the recommendations. The ban on making phone calls, as well as sending and receiving e-mails and text messages or using Wi-Fi, is expected to remain in place, the panel members said.

As the owner of multiple mobile devices who flies at least a half-dozen times a year, this is great news. As someone who writes about the mobile industry, however, I think any relaxed rules will be tough to enforce, particularly if the F.A.A. tries to discern different device types.

Why? It’s becoming difficult to tell a phone from a tablet these days. Yes, a 10-inch slate is easy to spot in crowd, but what about a phone that has a 5- or 6-inch screen? There are even some tablets with 7-inch screens that support cellular voice. And nearly all of these e-book readers and small tablets are available with mobile broadband options.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7: Best small slate yet? Thumbnail

The problem I see is that airline attendants won’t really be able to tell if a device is trying to connect to a service over Wi-Fi or mobile broadband.

Sure, if they see you yapping on a handset that’s near your ear, that’s an easy tell. But what about getting a last-minute e-book from the cloud during takeoff? There’s no way to spot that. Having an instant message conversation? Yes, they’d see you typing, but what’s to stop people from switching into a note-taking app and saying they were just making a to-do list? Heck, you could switch to your approved e-book reading app and make it look like you were adding an annotation.

I think the expected FAA action is good; don’t get me wrong. But these days, mobile devices can be used for a nearly infinite amount of activities. Trying to ban certain ones is going to be a tricky situation.