FAA loosens rules for electronic devices during flights

3:43 PM, Oct 31, 2013   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) -- Airline passengers soon will be able to use portable electronic devices such as readers and games during takeoffs, landings and throughout flights, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday. 

Before the new rule takes effect, airlines must demonstrate that aircraft won't be at risk because of potential interference from portable electronic devices. That is expected to take place quickly, and the devices will be approved for use by the end of the year in most of the nation's airline fleet. 

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Connecting to the Internet remains prohibited when the plane is less than 10,000 feet in the air. Voice calls also are banned during the entire flight, under a Federal Communications Commission rule. Passengers should continue to follow all instructions from flight crews regarding the use of the devices, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. 

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The decision follows a report Sept. 30 from a 28-member committee representing airlines, manufacturers, electronics makers, pilots and flight attendants. 

"We found that we could protect aviation safety and at the same time address the passenger desire for use of their portable devices," Huerta said. "The committee determined that most commercial airplanes can tolerate radio interference from portable electronic devices." 

The announcement marks a change in 50-year-old policy restricting the use of electronics aboard aircraft. Thursday's decision marks a major change for passengers eager to keep reading an electronic book, listen to music or play a game while the plane is lower than 10,000 feet in the air, when those activities have been prohibited. 

The prohibition against electronics began decades ago because of concerns about interference with cockpit communications and navigation equipment. But passengers have sought easier use of their gadgets as electronics became more widespread and aircraft equipment less susceptible to stray signals. 

Flight attendants welcomed the opportunity to ease enforcement of the prohibition against gadgets. Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said the change in rules will benefit passengers and crew. "Once the new policy is safely implemented - and we're going to work closely with the carrier to do that - it will be a win-win," Glading said. "We're frankly tired of feeling like 'hall monitors' when it comes to this issue." 

Delta Air Lines spokesman Paul Skrbec said the airline already has performed the required tolerance tests on all of its aircraft and has submitted paperwork to the FAA for its approval. "All of our aircraft are ready to go," he said, adding that the airline is now awaiting word from the FAA. "That could come as early as today for us."

JetBlue Airways also expects to be among the first airlines to allow electronics because it has a relatively small fleet -- less than 200 aircraft -- and only two types of planes, said spokeswoman Jenny Dervin. "We intend to be the first airline to allow fleet-wide PEDs" JetBlue Capt. Chuck Cook, who served on the advisory committee that recommended the policy change, said electronics were never a proven hazard but weren't cleared of risk, either. 

Cook said now airlines will demonstrate the devices are safe. "With this guidance, the airlines are able to accurately assess the risk," Cook said. Amazon.com, which produces Kindle electronic readers, welcomed the decision after working for years testing gadgets aboard planes to satisfy FAA safety requirements, according to spokesman Drew Herdener. 

"This is a big win for customers and, frankly, it's about time," he said. Electronics have always been allowed once a plane reaches 10,000 feet in the air. On planes equipped with their own Wi-fi hot spots, passengers have been able to connect to the Internet while the flight is cruising. 

Consumer groups and lawmakers such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have argued that electronic readers are no more dangerous than books during takeoff and landing. "This is great news for the traveling public - and frankly, a win for common sense," McCaskill, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, said of the FAA's decision. "I applaud the FAA for taking the necessary steps to change these outdated regulations and I look forward to the airlines turning around quick plans for implementation." 

The Association of Flight Attendants voiced support for the decision provided that electronic devices are proven not to interfere with on-board communications. "In order to expand the use of PEDs safely, the commercial aviation industry must first demonstrate that airplanes can tolerate electromagnetic interference from passenger devices," the AFA said. "At the same time, appropriate policies and procedures, supported by effective crew training programs and focused safety messaging from the industry to travelers, are needed to ensure that expanded use by passengers does not degrade safety and security." 

Huerta said in perhaps 1% of flights with low visibility, electronics will still be banned at some points in flight on some planes. "In those cases, passengers may be asked to turn off devices," Huerta said. "It's important for everyone's safety that passengers obey requests to store such devices if need be."

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