FAA OKs Air Passengers Using Gadgets on Planes

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By JOAN LOWY
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Airline passengers will be able to use their
electronic devices gate-to-gate to read, work, play games, watch movies
and listen to music – but not talk on their cellphones – under
much-anticipated guidelines issued Thursday by the Federal Aviation
Administration.

But passengers shouldn't
expect changes to happen right away, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta
said at a news conference. How fast the change is implemented will vary
by airline, he said.

Airlines will have to
show the FAA how their airplanes meet the new guidelines and that
they've updated their flight-crew training manuals, safety announcements
and rules for stowing devices to reflect the new guidelines. Delta and
JetBlue said they would immediately submit plans 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 not supposed to restart them until the planes reach
10,000 feet and the captain gives the go-ahead. Passengers are supposed
to turn their devices off again as the plane descends to land and not
restart them until the plane is on the ground.

Under
the new guidelines, airlines whose planes are properly protected from
electronic interference may allow passengers to use the devices during
takeoffs, landings and taxiing, the FAA said. Most new airliners and
other planes that have been modified so that passengers can use Wifi at
higher altitudes are expected to meet the criteria.

But
connecting to the Internet to surf, exchange emails, text or download
data will still be prohibited below 10,000 feet. Passengers will be told
to switch their devices to airplane mode. That means no Words With
Friends, the online Scrabble-type game that actor Alec Baldwin was
playing on his smartphone in 2011 when he was famously booted off an
American Airlines jet for refusing to turn off the device while the
plane was parked at the gate. Heavier devices such as laptops will
continue to have to be stowed because of concern they might injure
someone if they go flying around the cabin.

Airline
passenger Ketan Patel, 24, said he's pleased with the change and happy
that regulators have debunked the idea that the devices pose a safety
problem. “If it isn't a problem, it should be allowed,” he said as he
stepped into a security line at Reagan National Airport near Washington,
a smartphone in his hand.

Another passenger
entering the same line, insurance marketing manager Melinda Neuman, 28,
of Topeka, Kan., was disappointed that she still won't be able to text.

“If you can't download data, what's the point?” she said. “I don't power it off all the time, anyway.”

In-flight
cellphone calls will continue to be prohibited. Regulatory authority
over phone calls belongs to the Federal Communications Commission, not
the FAA. The commission prohibits the calls because of concern that
phones on planes flying at hundreds of miles per hour could strain the
ability of cellular networks to 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 the issue recommended last month that the
government permit greater use of personal electronic devices.

Pressure
has been building on the FAA to ease restrictions on their use. Critics
such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., say there is no valid safety
reason for the prohibitions. Restrictions have also become more
difficult to enforce as use of the devices has become ubiquitous. Some
studies indicate as many as a third of passengers forget or ignore
directions to turn off their devices.

The FAA
began restricting passengers' use of electronic devices in 1966 in
response to reports of interference with navigation and communications
equipment when passengers began carrying FM radios, the high-tech
gadgets of their day.

A lot has changed since
then. New airliners are far more reliant on electrical systems than
previous generations of aircraft, but they are also designed and
approved by the FAA to be resistant to electronic interference. Airlines
are already offering Wi-Fi use at cruising altitudes on planes modified
to be more resistant to interference.

The
vast majority of airliners should qualify for greater electronic device
use under the new guidelines, Huerta said. In rare instances of landings
during severe weather with low visibility, pilots may still order
passengers to turn off devices because there is some evidence of
potential interference with instrument landing systems under those
conditions, he said.

Today's electronic
devices generally emit much lower power radio transmissions than
previous generations of devices. E-readers, for example, emit only
minimal transmissions when turning a page. But transmissions 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 officials loaded an
airliner full of their Kindle e-readers and flew it around to test for
problems but found none.

A travel industry
group welcomed the changes, calling them common-sense accommodations for
a traveling public now bristling with technology. “We're pleased the
FAA recognizes that an enjoyable passenger experience is not
incompatible with safety and security,” said Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S.
Travel Association.

Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP-Joan-Lowy

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