Amazon ran the technical analysis of whether we have to shut down Kindles on planes

Amazon had a lot of happy news to report in its earnings release last Thursday -- enough revenue to keep investors happy, even though the company kept losing money. CEO Jeff Bezos was characteristically giddy, ticking off his achievements, including one in Washington D.C.: A Federal Aviation Administration-commissioned panel finally recommended that airline passengers be allowed to use portable electronic devices (i.e., Kindles) on the plane, opening the door to a reversal of a ban against those devices within months.


Victory! (Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg News)

In the release, Bezos included "a big hat tip to Nick Bilton on that one." Nick Bilton is the New York Times technology writer who was upset when interrupted in his Kindle reading as a plane taxied for takeoff, and then got the Times to pay for an independent test of whether the rays put out by a Kindle could actually disrupt a plane's communications systems. The answer was no -- which, sure, might have helped embarrass the FAA into giving its abundance of caution a rest. Bilton certainly took a victory lap when the panel's recommendation came out.

But you know who Bezos probably should've thanked? Paul Misener, Amazon's head of global public policy, who chaired the technical subcommittee on the panel that pushed for the change (its report still hasn't come out). Misener has also lobbied the Federal Communications Commission, which has some jurisdiction over the issue, on "issues related to accessibility" for the past few years (the company would not confirm whether or not those issues related to the airplane question). Amazon even packed a plane full of Kindles, switched on, to make a point.

Sure, it's true that plenty of other companies and organizations that supported and would benefit from consumers being able to use gadgets during taxiing and landing. But it's still eyebrow-raising that a company with the most commercial interest in the outcome of a panel's report would directly oversee the scientific content of that report, as opposed to, say, some independent technical expert, or even someone on the FAA's staff who might know about such things (like the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which is stocked with academics). Because if a company puts out research supporting its business interests, it's usually taken with a heaping spoonful of salt.

At the FAA, though, it's standard operating procedure. The agency convenes panels frequently, and often relies on people who make the equipment to test things and issue recommendations -- which just creates the opportunity for manipulation, even if it's never exercised. So if you're a stickler for scientific ethics, just look the other way.

Here's what the agency had to say:

The FAA sought public comment on expanded use of portable electronic devices on airplanes and announced publicly that the Agency was forming an advisory rulemaking committee.  We selected participants based on experience and knowledge on the issue with the goal of having representation from stakeholders across the industry.  The final report came from a group of experts that included representatives from the airlines, aviation manufacturers, passengers, pilots, flight attendants, and the mobile technology industry.  The agency regularly works with government and industry experts to gather information to help the FAA make decisions on key technical issues.

Disclosure: Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. 

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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Brian Fung | October 28, 2013