FAA: Airline Passengers May Use Most Electronic Devices in Flight

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-10-31

FAA: Airline Passengers May Use Most Electronic Devices in Flight

Airline passengers on U.S. flights will soon be allowed to use most personal electronic devices (PEDs) during any phase of a flight, from taxiing to takeoff, climbing and landing, under expanded new rules announced Oct. 31 by the FAA.

What that means, according to the agency, is that e-readers, gaming devices, video players and similar devices will no longer have to be shut down for takeoffs and landings. Cell phones, meanwhile, will no longer have to be completely shut off, as requested by many airlines, but will instead be permitted to remain in airplane mode during flights. The new rules will have no effect on existing bans on the use of cell phones for actual calls during all flights.

"The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta today announced that the FAA has determined that airlines can safely expand passenger use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) during all phases of flight, and is immediately providing the airlines with implementation guidance," the agency reported in a statement. "Due to differences among fleets and operations, the implementation will vary among airlines, but the agency expects many carriers will prove to the FAA that their planes allow passengers to safely use their devices in airplane mode, gate-to-gate, by the end of the year."

The relaxation of the flight rules come after the FAA has been looking into the PED issue for more than a year so it could garner opinions from experts, including airline representatives, aviation manufacturers, passengers, pilots, flight attendants and the mobile technology industry, according to the agency.

"Passengers 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," the statement said. "Electronic items, books and magazines, must be held or put in the seat back pocket during the actual takeoff and landing roll. Cell phones should be in airplane mode or with cellular service disabled—i.e., no signal bars displayed—and cannot be used for voice communications based on FCC regulations that prohibit any airborne calls using cell phones."

The FAA in August 2012 created a working group made up of government and industry leaders, called the Aviation Rulemaking Committee, to examine the rules and procedures that regulated PEDs so that they could decide whether policy changes are possible, according to an earlier eWEEK report. One key issue that wasn't up for discussion, though, was the existing ban on in-flight cell phone use, which will continue indefinitely. Cell phone usage actually comes under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is a key reason that the FAA has not made rulings that could permit cell phone use on airplanes, according to the FAA.

"We believe today's decision honors both our commitment to safety and consumer's increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of their flights," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement. "These guidelines reflect input from passengers, pilots, manufacturers and flight attendants, and I look forward to seeing airlines implement these much-anticipated guidelines in the near future."

FAA: Airline Passengers May Use Most Electronic Devices in Flight

Ultimately, the decision to allow the use of most PEDs on flights came after the PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) concluded that most commercial airplanes can tolerate radio interference signals from PEDs, the FAA reported. "Once an airline verifies the tolerance of its fleet, it can allow passengers to use handheld, lightweight electronic devices—such as tablets, e-readers, and smartphones—at all altitudes."

An exception might be during times of low-visibility, when a flight crew might instruct passengers to turn off their devices during landing, according to the FAA. "The group also recommended that heavier devices should be safely stowed under seats or in overhead bins during takeoff and landing."

The FAA has been hinting about the potential changes since March 2013, when the agency announced that it was considering flight rules changes that would allow U.S. airline passengers to use their e-reader devices during takeoffs and landings. The FAA said at the time that it hoped to have a decision on the matter by the end of this year. The agency has been under pressure to let people use reading devices on planes or to provide solid scientific evidence about why the practice could be dangerous. The rules on electronic devices and their use during flights relate to concerns that the devices could potentially interfere with the sensitive avionics equipment that is used by flight crews to control their airplanes during all phases of flight.

The FAA move to allow the unfettered operation of most PEDs will likely please many business and vacation travelers who carry a widening array of devices with them when they fly.

To help airlines comply with the expanded rules, the FAA has issued a guidance paper with details about what will and will not be permitted so that airlines can minimize any potential interference with aircraft avionics systems. "This FAA tool will help airlines assess the risks of potential PED-induced avionics problems for their airplanes and specific operations," the statement said. "Airlines will evaluate avionics as well as changes to stowage rules and passenger announcements. Each airline will also need to revise manuals, checklists for crew member training materials, carry-on baggage programs and passenger briefings before expanding use of PEDs. Each airline will determine how and when they will allow passengers broader use of PEDs."

An FAA spokesperson could not immediately be reached for further comment by eWEEK.

The introduction of new kinds of PEDs, including e-readers, was a key motivator for the creation of the original FAA study on the topic.

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