New FAA rules for use of gadgets will change the inflight routine

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

The time capsule of air travel just gained another artifact: the pre-takeoff announcement. “Please turn off and stow all electronic devices” will now join such relics as complimentary meals, spacious leg room and free checked bags.

On Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration released new rules expanding the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) on planes. The change lifts the ban on use during takeoff and landing. Passengers will now be able to e-read, e-play and e-listen during all phases of a flight.

“It will make the flight experience much more enjoyable,” said Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “There’s not a big distinction between [passengers] having a newspaper or a Kindle in front of their faces.”

The ban on making calls and sending text messages from mobile phones remains in place, although passengers will now be able to use phones set in airplane mode during take-off and landing. (Here’s a test: If you see signal bars, that’s bad. Disable the communications signal pronto.) The use of short-range Bluetooth accessories, such as wireless keyboards, will also be permitted.

“We think it’s not a bad thing. It may distract some people from cramped seating and lack of legroom,” said Paul ­Hudson, president of ­FlyersRights.org. “But we are glad that they stopped at people having cellphone conversations.”

All electronic devices emit electromagnetic signals, but after years of study and debate, the Federal Aviation Administration has concluded that most won’t interfere with airplane operations. Each airline will determine its own rules.

The FAA based its decision on findings from the PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee, a group of experts representing the airlines, aviation ­manufacturers, the mobile technology industry and passenger, pilot and flight attendant groups. According to an FAA statement, the committee’s report determined that radio interference from PEDs won’t threaten most planes’ safety. But it does depend on the aircraft.

“Not every plane is PED-tolerant,” said Veda Shook, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, referring to older models. “We need a more consistent approach.”

Inclement weather could also curb the gadgets’ greater freedom. The FAA mentioned low visibility as a factor in determining whether or not devices may be used.

Despite the relaxed rules, crewmembers will continue to stress cabin safety. Flight attendants will still ask passengers to pause in their diversions and direct their attention to the safety video. Travelers must also hold their items in their hands or stash them in the seatback pocket during critical times. Flight attendants may also place heavier objects, such as laptops, in the overhead bins.

“We still don’t want flying objects,” Glading said, “and we will still ask to have large objects stowed.”

Experts say that the airlines may adopt the new rule by the end of this year or at the start of 2014. The airlines must first prepare an implementation plan and present it to the agency for approval. Among the issues the carriers must address: avionics, changes to stowage rules and passenger announcements, revision of manuals, carry-on programs and passenger briefings.

“Each airline will determine how and when they will allow passengers broader use of PEDs,” the FAA said in a statement.

The role of flight attendants will also shift, from electronics police to guidance counselors.

“We will be informants, not enforcers,” said Glading.

But with the gain of PED use, we’ll lose an old friend, that soon-to-be antiquated phrase.

“I think we’ll have to change it,” said Glading, “and come up with something a little stronger.”

Andrea Sachs (not the one who wears Prada) has been writing for Travel since 2000. She travels near (Ellicott City, Jersey Shore) and far (Burma, Namibia, Russia), and finds adventure no matter the mileage. She is all packed for the Moon or North Korea, whichever opens first.
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