FAA to relax rules on personal electronic devices while in flight

Air travelers soon will be able to use personal electronics throughout their entire flight, the Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday, announcing an end to a prohibition that predates the era of smartphones, tablets, MP3 players and other digital devices.

The FAA has determined that airlines can safely expand passenger use of portable electronic devices during all phases of a flight, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference. He said the agency is providing airline carriers with guidance for implementation, and it expects them to start lifting the existing restrictions and allow gate-to-gate electronics use by the end of the year.

The changes will allow passengers to read, work, play games, watch movies and listen to music on their digital devices without having to turn them off during takeoff and landing.

Passengers will be able to keep their cellphones on if they are in “airplane mode”— with their cellular service disabled. Phone calls remain banned by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC had considered lifting the ban before opting in 2007 to leave the rules in place.

The new regulations stem from recommendations made by an advisory group in September. And they follow lobbying from travelers’ groups, tech companies and lawmakers who urged the FAA to relax the existing rules while making the case that the use of the electronics pose no safety or security threat during taxiing, takeoff and landing.

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.

“This is great news for the traveling public — and, frankly, a win for common sense,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection, in a statement. McCaskill had pushed for easing the restrictions.

The FAA ruling was welcomed by passengers and various groups in the tech and air travel industries as a step forward in changing outdated regulations and in giving customers a better in-flight experience.

“The travel community is grateful, because what’s good for the traveler is good for travel-related businesses and our economy,” Roger Dow, president and chief executive of the U.S. Travel Association, said in a statement.

Paul Misener, Amazon.com’s vice president for global public policy, was a member of the committee that advocated for the rule changes. The committee also included representatives from airlines, industry groups and aircraft manufacturers.

“We’ve been fighting for our customers on this issue for years — testing an airplane packed full of Kindles, working with the FAA, and serving as the device manufacturer on this committee,” Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said in a statement. “This is a big win for customers and, frankly, it’s about time.”

Others were more cautious in their support for the change.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents nearly 50,000 pilots in the United States and Canada, said it hopes the expanded use of electronics is gradually phased in and “it is done with safety as the top priority.”

The group says it supports storing the devices during takeoff and landing to ensure safety and that it is concerned with relying on passengers to turn off their devices during poor weather conditions.

“We urge passengers to realize the potential seriousness of using a device at a time when any crew member — pilot or flight attendant — has advised them that it is unsafe to do so,” said the association in a statement.

Still, the move is expected to make things more convenient for the millions of airline passengers who have long complained about enforcement of the ban. Travelers and advocates said being able to use personal electronics from takeoff to landing can increase in-flight productivity of business travelers and improve the overall flight experience. Critics of the ban say many passengers already ignore the rule, while others forget to turn off their devices.

“I would appreciate flying more if I could use my devices,” said Kristopher Keating, a frequent traveler from Richmond, who often chooses to travel by train because of the existing restrictions during air travel. “While I do appreciate downtime, it seems that the restrictions during takeoff and landing are arbitrary and often ignored.”

Although implementation will vary among airlines, Huerta said, the FAA expects all carriers to prove they can safely allow gate-to-gate use of electronics by the end of the year. Airlines must submit an implementation plan to the FAA for approval.

Leah Binkovitz and Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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