Experts flag concerns about charging devices on takeoff and landing

Prominent aircraft engineering and certification experts want industry and regulators to take a closer look at the safety implications of allowing passengers to charge their personal electronic devices (PEDs) during taxi, takeoff and landing, citing concerns that aircraft evacuations could be impeded if passengers trip or become entangled in cables.

Passengers traveling in the United States have enjoyed the freedom to use small PEDs gate-to-gate since late 2013, when the FAA started giving its blessing to operators. Other safety regulators around the world quickly followed suit, and it is now common for passengers to be immersed in their smart phones and tablets for the full journey.

Though some operators may require that small devices not be plugged in during critical phases of flight, “This is not regulated and has not been studied,” confirms FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

But studies should be undertaken to determine if regulatory action is needed, suggests veteran FAA designated engineering representative (DER) Jim Davidson. Even one passenger tripping on a passenger carry-on wire “can block an egress route slowing or even stopping the flow of escaping passengers”, he says. “This very well could be the difference in no or one loss of life (or more) in an otherwise survivable emergency situation.”

Kindly sharing his “thoughts and assumptions” on the matter with RGN, Davidson says he believes widebody aircraft would be more susceptible than narrowbody aircraft; passengers in the window seat would be most susceptible; the economy seat is more susceptible than business class and first class; susceptibility depends on: seat design, number of total connections, location of connections, physical strength of connection (plug, USB…), type of carry-on device; and total number of connected devices between passenger and egress route.

“At the very least, airlines ‘should’ address this subject by requiring passengers to be ‘fully unplugged’ during landing and takeoff. The flight attendant would be the person performing the visual in both circumstances,” he adds.

United Airlines has been telling passengers to unplug below 10,000ft for some time. “I had been taking the same city-pair (and often the same flight number) for 10-plus years and right after the FAA okay’d gate-to-gate PEDs did this new policy appear,” observes frequent flyer Hillel Glazer. He notes that there “is not a requirement to put cords away, just unplug them”. United spokeswoman Karen May confirms the carrier has adopted this procedure as a safety precaution.

The potential hindrance to egress posed by PED cords is a concern shared by Jonathan Moritz, VP at Delta Engineering, which works closely with the FAA to obtain or issue FAA Supplemental Type Certificates and various other approvals. Moritz worries that passengers might be inclined to “run over” other passengers if blocked during an evacuation.

But he flags another concern – those plugs and cables protruding from the seatbacks could result in head injuries in the event of a survivable accident. “New aircraft have to meet Head Impact Criterion (HIC); that wasn’t done with a USB cable plugged into it. So in the event of a hard landing that forced somebody’s body forward, will that USB cable sticking out of there now hurt someone?”

Astronics, the world’s leading provider of in-seat power, does not take a position on the subject of PED charging during critical phases of flight. “We leave it up to our customers,” notes executive VP Mark Peabody.

“Where the outlet is installed, and at what flight phase someone can be charging if it is installed across the seat, appears to be up to the owner/operator. I personally have experienced a variety of operator policies when I have travelled, ranging from charge anytime, to charge only after takeoff/landing, to charge only after takeoff/landing if you are in the exit row,” he says.

It seems the time is ripe for industry and/or regulators to develop a consistent policy.

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