SURPRISE: the FAA has not (cannot?) completed a study of Quality of Inflight Experience during Other Passengers’ Cell Phone Use

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ARTICLE: Transportation Leaders Request Overdue In-Flight Communications Report
Cell Phone Use
Congress has to make up its mind. It sends messages that the FAA needs to make better use of its budgeted funds, which have been reduced over the past 10-15 years. At the same time, the House and Senate enact legislation which imposes more burdens on that organization. For example, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, enacted February 14, 2012 is 145 pages long and includes about 200 sections, many of which direct the FAA to do a variety of tasks. These prescriptions included in this Act—studying UAVs, setting overflight fees, setting aircraft registration fees, creating AIP preferences for airports with recycling plants, refining veterans’ preferences, etc. Each of these sections compels someone to comply with the Congressional mandate in addition or in lieu of her/his other assignments.

Congress included in this 2012 bill a §410, which reads as follows:
Cell Phone Study
Aside from the deadlines for the various steps established, the Congress directed the Administrator to review foreign government cell phone policies and their air carriers experience and to determine the actual use by passengers of their phones on flights (which is prohibited). The first requires the US government to contact their international counterparts and to provide the US with policies and reports which may or may not exist. At a minimum, the FAA will be asking a favor of another sovereign; at a maximum, it will be a very uncomfortable interaction. The second section ((b) (2)) involves measuring a theoretical null set. Passengers are not supposed to use cell phones on airplanes, so researchers are supposed to get on airplanes and try to find prohibited phone usage—that seems to be a really useful exercise.

But it is subsection ((b) (3)) that really tests the FAA, a technical organization. Yes, the FAA can measure the impact of prohibited cell phone use if they can find it; they have engineers, scientists and economists to measure safety impact. But no, the FAA has no psychologists, sociologists or other experts to assess the “quality of the flight experience of passengers and flight attendants.”

  • Query: how does one assign quantifiable dimensions to quality of flight experience?
  • Another responsible question: should the FAA hire outside experts to make such an analysis and the dollars required to do so should be deleted from what FAA safety regulatory project?
  • Is it not almost intuitive that all who are listening to another passenger’s cell phone conversation are highly annoyed and that the individuals, who deemed it necessary, important or fun to call someone, found it a positive experience?

The FAA does a lot of things well, but creating some index of passenger comfort/inconvenience is not one of them. Congress correctly has demanded that this safety agency discipline its use of personnel and funds to meet its critical safety mandates. An FAA report on a §410 project would be criticized by the US OIG and/or the GAO because the FAA’s does not have passenger quality experience expertise.

Why then are the Senator and the Representative, who signed this letter, surprised that the cell phone project was not a priority?

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