WASHINGTON (AP) - Airline passengers will be able to use theirelectronic devices gate-to-gate to read, work, play games, watch moviesand listen to music - but not talk on their cellphones - undermuch-anticipated new guidelines issued Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
But passengers shouldn't expect changes to happen immediately. Howfast the change is implemented will vary by the airline, FAAAdministrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference.
Airlines will have to show the FAA how their airplanes meet the newguidelines and that they've updating their flight crew training manualsand rules for stowing devices to reflect the new guidelines. Delta saidit was submitting a plan to implement the new policy.
Currently, passengers are required to turn off their smartphones,tablets and other devices once a plane's door closes. They're notsupposed to restart them until the planes reach 10,000 feet and thecaptain gives the go-ahead. Passengers are supposed to turn theirdevices off again as the plane descends to land and not restart themuntil the plane is on the ground.
Under the new guidelines, airlines whose planes are properlyprotected from electronic interference may allow passengers to use thedevices during takeoffs, landings and taxiing, the FAA said. Most newairliners and other planes that have been modified so that passengerscan use Wifi at higher altitudes are expected to meet the criteria.
But connecting to the Internet to surf, exchange emails, text ordownload data will still be prohibited below 10,000 feet, the agencysaid. Passengers will be told to switch their smartphones, tablets andother devices to airplane mode. So, still no Words With Friends, theonline Scrabble-type game that actor Alec Baldwin was playing on hissmartphone in 2011 when he was famously booted off an American Airlinesjet for refusing to turn off the device while the plane was parked atthe gate. And heavier devices such as laptops will continue to have tobe stowed because of concern they might injure someone if they go flyingaround the cabin.
In-flight cellphone calls also will continue to be prohibited.Regulatory authority over phone calls belongs to the FederalCommunications Commission, not the FAA. The communications commissionprohibits the calls because of concern that phones on planes flying athundreds of miles per hour could strain the ability of cellular networksto keep up as the devices keep trying to connect with cellphone towers,interfering with service to users on the ground.
An industry advisory committee created by the FAA to examine theissue recommended last month that the government permit greater use ofpersonal electronic devices.
Pressure has been building on the FAA in recent years to easerestrictions on their use. Critics such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.,contend there is no valid safety reason for the prohibitions. Therestrictions have also become increasingly difficult to enforce as useof the devices has become ubiquitous. Some studies indicate as many as athird of passengers forget or ignore directions to turn off theirdevices.
The FAA began restricting passengers' use of electronic devices in1966 in response to reports of interference with navigation andcommunications equipment when passengers began carrying FM radios, thehigh-tech gadgets of their day.
A lot has changed since then. New airliners are far more reliant onelectrical systems than previous generations of aircraft, but they arealso designed and approved by the FAA to be resistant to electronicinterference. Airlines have been offering Wi-Fi use at cruisingaltitudes to passengers for several years. Planes modified for Wi-Fisystems are also more resistant to interference.
The vast majority of airliners should qualify for greater electronic device use under the new guidelines, Huerta said.
Today's electronic devices generally emit much lower power radiotransmissions than previous generations of devices. E-readers, forexample, emit only minimal transmissions when turning a page. Buttransmissions are stronger when devices are downloading or sending data.
Among those pressing for a relaxation of restrictions on passengers'use of the devices has been Amazon.com. In 2011, company officialsloaded an airliner full of their Kindle e-readers and flew it around totest for problems but found none.
FAA advisory committee members expressed mixed feelings about whetheruse of the devices presents any risk. Douglas Kidd of the NationalAssociation of Airline Passengers said he believes interference from thedevices is genuine even if the risk is minimal. Other committee memberssaid there are only anecdotal reports from pilots to support that thedevices can interfere with aircraft systems, and most of those reportsare very old. However, the committee recommended the FAA allow pilots toorder passengers to shut off devices during instrument landings in lowvisibility.
A travel industry group welcomed the changes, calling themcommon-sense accommodations for a traveling public now bristling withtechnology. "We're pleased the FAA recognizes that an enjoyablepassenger experience is not incompatible with safety and security," saidRoger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.