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European Airline Agency OK's In-Flight Mobile Phone Use

Could this potential loosening of the rules in Europe find its way into U.S. skies?


The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has ruled that airline passengers will be allowed to keep their mobile devices on in full transmitting mode throughout their flights on European airliners, as long as the practice is also permitted by an airline's individual operating rules.

The EASA made its announcement on Sept. 26, essentially wiping out the "airplane mode-only" rules that have prevented the operation of smartphones, tablets, laptops, e-readers, MP3 players and other portable electronic devices (PEDs) during taxiing, takeoff and landings of aircraft across Europe for some time. Cell phone calls have also been banned in the past during flights across Europe, but the new EASA rules could soon allow cellular calls during flights, if the technological limits for such calls are also resolved to make them possible from tens of thousands of feet in the air.

"The new guidance allows airlines to permit PEDs to stay switched on, without the need to be in 'Airplane Mode,'" the EASA states in its announcement. "This is the latest regulatory step towards enabling the ability to offer 'gate-to-gate' telecommunication or WiFi services."

Under the EASA's new rules, "Airlines can also allow the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) throughout the flight, after a safety assessment process [by each airline]," the agency reports. "As a result, passengers will be able to use their PEDs just like in any other mode of transport: throughout the trip."

Well, there goes the neighborhood. Let's all hope that this isn't an early warning that the same possibilities could be facing U.S. fliers once the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) complete their reviews and analysis on the use of cellular devices in flight.

In the United States, the DOT in August became the latest federal agency to look at whether in-flight mobile phone calls should be allowed on aircraft. Public comments are expected to be sought by the DOT later this year. The discussions and controversy over cell phone use in aircraft have been simmering for some time in the United States. The FCC late last year began a deeper look into the matter, according to an earlier eWEEK report.

According to the EASA, the new always-on device policy will follow testing by airlines to ensure that aircraft navigational and other systems "are not affected in any way by the transmission signals from the PEDs," the agency reports. "For this reason, there may be differences among airlines whether and when PEDs can be used."

Airline crews will still have the authority to ask a passenger to turn their PEDs off in-flight, and passengers will have to check to be sure that their airlines permit in-flight transmitting mode on the devices, the agency states.

So what does all of this mean for U.S. fliers in the future? Could this potential loosening of the rules in Europe mean that U.S. air travelers will soon have to start worrying about nearby passengers having loud conversations on their smartphones at 33,000 feet over Omaha?

Let's hope not.

The argument about whether smartphone signals interfere with aircraft instruments and radars is only one part of the situation for U.S regulators. There are also the cramped, overcrowded, often miserable conditions inside today's packed airliners where if one person were talking on a phone, it would be annoying and bothersome to everyone else. Life is the skies in 2014 is miserable enough. We don't need one more distraction that could potentially cause even more tensions and anger for already unhappy air travelers.