WASHINGTON -- The government is moving toward easing restrictions on airline passengers using electronic devices to listen to music, play games, read books, watch movies and work during takeoffs and landings, but it could take a few months.
An industry-labor advisory committee was supposed to make recommendations next month to the Federal Aviation Administration on easing the restrictions. But the agency said in a statement Friday the deadline has been extended to September because committee members asked for extra time to finish assessing whether it’s safe to lift restrictions.
“The FAA recognizes consumers are intensely interested in the use of personal electronics aboard aircraft; that is why we tasked a government-industry group to examine the safety issues and the feasibility of changing the current restrictions,” the statement said.
The agency is under public and political pressure to ease the restrictions as more people bring their e-book readers, music and video players, smartphones and laptops with them when they fly.
Technically, the FAA doesn’t bar use of electronic devices when aircraft are below 10,000 feet. But under FAA rules, airlines that want to let passengers use the devices are faced with a practical impossibility — they would have to show that they’ve tested every type and make of device passengers would use to ensure there is no electromagnetic interference with aircraft radios and electrical and electronic systems.
As a result, U.S. airlines simply bar all electric device use below 10,000 feet. Airline accidents are most likely to occur during takeoffs, landings, and taxiing.
Cellphone calls and Internet use and transmissions are also prohibited, and those restrictions are not expected to be lifted. Using cellphones to make calls on planes is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. There is concern that making calls from fast-flying planes might strain cellular systems, interfering with service on the ground. There is also the potential annoyance factor — whether passengers will be unhappy if they have to listen to other passengers yakking on the phone.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that a draft report by the advisory committee indicates its 28 members have reached a consensus that at least some of the current restrictions should be eased.
An official familiar with FAA’s efforts on the issue said agency officials would like to find a way to allow passengers to use electronic devices during takeoffs and landings the same way they’re already allowed to use them when planes are cruising above 10,000 feet. The official requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak by name.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a Senate panel in April that he convened the advisory committee in the hope of working out changes to the restrictions.
“It’s good to see the FAA may be on the verge of acknowledging what the traveling public has suspected for years — that current rules are arbitrary and lack real justification,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of Congress’ more outspoken critics of the restrictions, said in a statement. She contends that unless scientific evidence can be presented to justify the restrictions, they should be lifted.
Edward Pizzarello, the co-founder of frequent flier discussion site MilePoint, says lifting the restriction is “long overdue.”
“I actually feel like this regulation has been toughest on flight attendants. Nobody wants to shut off their phone, and the flight attendants are always left to be the bad guys and gals,” said Pizzarello, 38, of Leesburg, Va.
Actor Alec Baldwin became the face of passenger frustration with the restrictions in 2011 when he was kicked off a New York-bound flight in Los Angeles for refusing to turn off his cellphone. Baldwin later issued an apology to fellow American Airlines passengers who were delayed, but mocked the flight attendant on Twitter.
“I just hope they do the sensible thing and don’t allow people to talk on their cellphones during flight,” Pizzarello said.