At last! The FAA has seen the light on in-flight electronics

October 31, 2013
The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday that it would expand approved use of mobile electronic devices like tablets and e-readers on airplanes. (The Washington Post)

At long last, airline passengers fed up with having to switch off their electronic devices during takeoff and landing will be able to use them freely at all times on a flight,  not just at cruising altitudes.

The FAA has announced that airlines will soon be receiving guidance on how to implement the new rules, which still require devices to be in airplane mode at all times.

"I will be the biggest proponent of following flight attendant instructions," said FAA administrator Michael Huerta in a Washington news conference. "But I did feel like any regulation that has been around for a long time — a lot has changed in 50 years. Let's take another look."

The change won't take place overnight; each company will ease the restrictions according to their own timelines. Still, it's a welcome relief for passengers after a years-long battle to overturn the prohibition.

Surprisingly, once an independent panel (whose members included Amazon) signed off on the idea, it didn't take long for the FAA to follow suit. A decision was expected "within months," according to my colleague Lydia DePillis, but the government's announcement today came just five weeks after the panel finished its safety study.

In a statement, the FAA said customers will "eventually be able to read e-books, play games and watch videos on their devices during all phases of flight, with very limited exceptions."

Requiring that passengers use airplane mode might make life more difficult for flight attendants, who might not be able to check as quickly whether a customer has the feature turned on. But there's little point in keeping your cell radios enabled anyway, said Huerta.

"They're going to ping for a signal, and they won't get one," he said. "You're going to arrive at your destination with a dead phone, and I don't think anyone wants that."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Brian Fung · October 31, 2013