SPECIAL REPORT: Connected in the sky

TYLER (KYTX) -- Does it frustrate you to have to turn off your phone and other electronics, when you get on a plane? It's been going on for a long time. In fact, the FAA's first rules against on-board electronics date back to 1958.

Now those old rules could be changing.

You know the drill. You get on the plane and they tell you to turn off everything.

"The only thing you can do is listen to the little spiel about the seatbelts," iPad owner David McPherson said. "Everyone knows how to buckle a seatbelt."

McPherson has a few miles under that seat belt.

"I have lots of Southwest Airlines points and American Airlines points too," he said.

It's American that's gotten under his skin a little bit because its pilots are throwing out paper in favor of an iPad that's on for the entire flight.

"Our airport diagrams, our departure procedures, our arrival procedures," American Airlines Captain David Clark said. "In addition to that we have aircraft manuals on the iPad."

"If they can use them, why can't I?" Clark said.

American does have some hoops to jump through--including demonstrating every iPad to an FAA inspector. They have to prove no harmful radio waves are coming out--even in flight mode.

The airline says it's just not possible to do that for thousands of passengers every day.

"The industry hasn't come up with an acceptable test standard to truly determine if in those infinite combinations there's interference," Clark said.

Right now there are three categories your electronics fall into:

  • Stuff you can never use like walkie talkies and radios
  • Stuff you can always use like a hearing aid or a watch
  • Stuff you can sometimes use like laptops, cell phones, e-readers and tablets in flight mode

Southwest Airlines has been a leader in bringing out WiFi on board its airplanes for customers to do everything from browsing the Internet to watching now live TV and you can do it all on your iPhone, your iPad or your Android.

It's a lot lighter than those old seat back televisions and all those boxes under the floor that you never see. When we came here to their headquarters in Dallas we learned that's saving them big money on fuel costs.

"Our flight times are getting longer and passengers are also evolving, When the sense that they want to be connected," Angela Vargo with Southwest's Customer Experience said.

Vargo has been looking at ways to keep you occupied for years. Southwest was looking at WiFi back when most of its customers were still carrying laptops.

Then came the iPhone.

"And it changed everything," Vargo said. "So we could never have anticipated that. We knew that mobile devices were going to grow, but not to the degree that they have over the last couple of years."

Now nearly 350 Southwest airplanes are wired (wirelessly).

"It's really like channel surfing in flight," Vargo said. "Except it's on your own device."

A special connection developed by a company called Row 44 lets you do just about anything. We watched Fox News and then clicked over to the CBS 19 website.

But the installation of WiFi in an airplane is a lot tougher than going to best buy and buying a router.

"There's so much complexity associated with putting anything on an aircraft, much less a WiFi system."

Hundreds of individual parts and pieces have to be inspected and certified, and all that costs a lot more money than your great deal to Vegas.

Getting more freedom to turn things on when you want to probably will too.

"I doubt very seriously that we'll ever get to use our stuff until we get to 10,000 feet," McPherson said.

In a NASA study on that kind of interference, researchers only found about 100 examples of interference, over 15 years.

That was out of about 30,000 commercial flights per day.


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