Friday, June 13, 2014

No More Inflight Selfies?

Well silly me for not keeping closer tabs on the Federal Registrar. I didn't know about this until a friend brought it to my attention, but in April the FAA published a final rule amending FAR §121.542 - more popularly known as the "sterile cockpit rule" - to include a prohibition on the personal use of laptops and personal electronic devices during all phases of flight. This isn't a huge surprise, because Congress told them to change the rule two years ago in a delayed reaction to the NW188 overflight incident in 2010. It's somewhat of a moot point now as the language is restricted to Part 121 operators and most airlines have already changed their policies to prohibit inflight pilot usage of PEDs. But the final language is a bit interesting, not least because it leaves somewhat ambiguous the question of whether it is legal to take a photo in cruise with a digital camera.
§121.542(d): During all flight time as defined in 14 CFR 1.1, no flight crewmember may use, nor may any pilot in command permit the use of, a personal wireless communications device (as defined in 49 U.S.C. 44732(d)) or laptop computer while at a flight crewmember duty station unless the purpose is directly related to operation of the aircraft, or for emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications, in accordance with air carrier procedures approved by the Administrator.
First off, the reference to "flight time as defined in 14 CFR 1.1" means that this rule is applicable from the time the aircraft first moves under its own power to the time it comes to rest after landing - i.e., from taxi until parked at the gate. Though it doesn't say it in the reg, the FAA clarified in the final rule that the "personal" in "personal wireless communications device" refers to usage, not ownership. So this regulation also applies to company-provided EFBs or tablets if they are used for any purpose not directly related to operation of the aircraft, or emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications. The real question is what exactly constitutes a "wireless communications device." The definition used comes from the Communications Act of 1934, which as amended states that "personal wireless services means commercial mobile services, unlicensed wireless services, and common carrier wireless exchange access service." In the final rule, the FAA further defined wireless telecommunications as the transfer of information between two or more points that are not physically connected. This would seem to exclude, say, an old-school iPod or cheap memory stick music player, yet the FAA included these as examples of devices which would be prohibited, as well as e-readers though the early ones had no wireless capability. Their sample list of prohibited devices doesn't really jibe with the language of the ruling.

What about cameras, then? There's no specific mention of them in the rule or accompanying discussion. It's pretty clear that a smartphone or tablet camera is prohibited. I suspect my little Nikon Coolpix is as well, since it has wifi & bluetooth transmit features. But what of my Nikon D5100 digital SLR? It has no wireless capabilities. Ditto for my first-generation GoPro camera. It's a gray area. Here's another potential loophole: the FAA says jumpseaters are excepted from the rule. So maybe, you can have a jumpseater fish your smartphone out of your bag and take a photo! But don't ham it up too much for the camera, the feds might call that "use!"

It's a moot point for me, in any case. My new airline has FOM language that is more restrictive than the FAR, as it includes both pilots and jumpseaters using any electronic device not certified for use in the aircraft, and actually begins with the reading of the Pre-Flight Checklist (typically 10 minutes prior to pushback). I originally had the idea that my old Nikon N60 35mm SLR would be allowed, but then realized that as old school as it is, it does use electronics for autofocus, metering, and film rewinding. So it looks like the one legal camera to use for inflight cockpit shots at my new airline is one of those 12-shot disposable film cameras...as long as I can find one without a flash! Sorry to say, I don't think you can expect any more inflight shots from me, at least in the Mad Dog.

Now the Cub? That's still fair game! The feds seem hellbound on legislating airline pilots straight to sleep, but thankfully we can still have some fun in GA!


8 comments:

Ron Rapp said...

I just wrote about this for AOPA.

The FAA's information notice about the rule implementation notes that they strongly encourage 135 and 91k operators to adopt the same restriction. Knowing the FAA, it's only a matter of time before they put it into regulatory form.

One 737 captain emailed me to say that he uses his iPhone to check Nexrad weather when he's sitting in a long queue waiting for departure, noting that it can be an hour or more between when the PEDs must be turned off and when the flight actually departs. "I'm sure weather can move in an hour", he writes.

A controller pointed out that they are also prohibited from using any PEDs. So a tower controller on a long overnight shift with nobody else on duty, no traffic, and nothing to keep him awake is forbidden to do anything but stare off into the darkness.

This doesn't serve the cause of flight safety.

Anonymous said...

Well Sam, call me an anti-authority hazard to aviation and the traveling public.... but my phone (in airplane mode) will continue to take photos when its safe to do so. The thing, then, is whether those photos ever get shared or published anywhere.

I do have to wonder whether the reg as it is written allows use of an electronic device when the wireless capabilities are turned off; is a wireless communications device still a wireless communications device if the wireless communication is disabled? That's the interpretation I'm rolling with for now, but again the ruling makes it less likely for me to want to share any photos from the cockpit.

- A regional FO

Pilotman said...

More and more restrictive rules. Very sad! :( Nice blog btw! :-) COntinue the good work! Greetings from EU.

Anonymous said...



Pretty much....kind of like the old days and they seemed to get through their shifts just fine back than.

Why should we have any real problems with less distractions in the cockpit/tower/etc? We get paid to do a job which basically means operate at the highest level in regards to safety, comfort and efficiency.

Angry Birds has a place on your iPhone....just not while moving at 500mph, 8 miles above the earth in an aluminum tube full of paying passengers!

From a fellow professional pilot, good stuff as always Sam....keep up the good work, we're all counting on you! :)

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602flyer said...

You need a good old Nikon FM-2N, Sam. No batteries needed unless you want to power the light meter!

Sat next to a new Horizon FO the other night commuting out of Portland. He was familiar with your blog! Good work.

JetAviator7 said...

Nice photo of the Navajo wing and a great photo of the Cub. Today it is really nice in Michigan so I think I will grab my Randolph Aviator sunglasses and my wife and head out to the airport to fly her J-3 Cub!

I'm inspired!

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