Don't expect the changes to happen immediately, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Thursday at a news conference announcing new rules. How fast will vary by airline.
Delta and JetBlue said they would quickly submit plans to implement the new policy. Airlines will have to show the FAA that 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.
The changes announced Thursday apply to both domestic and international flights by U.S. carriers, but the rules get a little tricky for international flights. On takeoff from the United States and during landing back in the U.S., passengers would be allowed to use electronics. However, when arriving or departing a foreign country, passengers would have to comply with local laws. Currently, most counties have their own prohibitions on electronic device use. However, they tend to follow the FAA's lead and likely could relax their own rules in the near future.
It sounded like good news to passengers heading out from Reagan National Airport on Thursday.
Ketan Patel, 24, said he's 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, a smartphone in his hand.
Monica Lexie, 50, entering the same line, said the change will enable her to use her Kindle to read longer. But then she was never bothered by the restrictions.
"You just shut it off and wait for the little light to go on," she said. "Our safety takes precedence."
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 it 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 Wi-Fi at higher altitudes are expected to meet the criteria.
Passengers will also be able to connect to the Internet to surf, exchange emails, or download data below 10,000 feet if the plane has an installed Wi-Fi system, but not through cellular networks. Passengers will be told to switch their devices to airplane mode. Heavier devices such as laptops will continue to have to be stowed away because of concern they might injure someone if they go flying around the cabin.
The guidelines reflect the evolution in types and prevalence of devices used by passengers over the past decade. In 2003, 70 per cent of passengers carried electronic devices with them on planes, and the most common device was a cellphone that wasn't capable of connecting to the Internet, followed by a calculator, according to a survey by the Consumer Electronics Association. A follow-up survey by the association this year found that 99 per cent of passengers carry some device with them, with smartphones the most common followed by notebook or laptop computers.
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 of the restraints such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, 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.
AP Airlines Writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.
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