The air travel rule that many passengers hated (and some outright ignored) could soon be a relic after the Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday that electronic devices can stay on from to boarding to landing.
Airlines will have to show the FAA that their planes can safely operate while passengers use electronics — “anything with an on-off switch,” as flight attendants are fond of saying — that emit radio transmissions.
The agency said Thursday that it expects many carriers will do so by the end of the year.
The rule change does not apply to talking on cellphones, which will still not be allowed.
Delta and JetBlue said they had both submitted plans to the FAA Thursday; American Airlines said it would send a plan for its entire mainline fleet Friday. In addition to proving that the planes meet the safety guidelines, airlines must show they have updated their flight-crew training manuals, safety announcements and rules for stowing devices.
The news was welcomed by many frequent fliers and travel industry groups.
“I think it’s long overdue,” William Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I wish I weren’t accessible on an airplane, but in today’s sell-sell-sell environment, we often do the [in-flight] Gogo Internet. When I’m on a plane, it seems like half of the passengers are on Gogo.”
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.
An industry advisory committee created by the FAA recommended last month that the government permit greater use of personal electronic devices.
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.
Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon, a Caribbean travel expert and writer who lives in Miami, was flying Thursday when the news was announced. She found out after landing in New York City and called the decision “fantastic.”
“I don’t know many seasoned air travelers who actually believed that turning on their devices was ever going to affect the safety of the plane,” she said. “I’m very happy to know that I can use devices in flight now.”
Attorney Valory Greenfield, who lives in Miami-Dade, said she hopes the relaxed rules will not open the door for passengers to talk on cellphones in the air. The FAA does not have authority over phone calls, but said the committee that suggested the rules on devices recommended the FAA consult with the Federal Communications Commission.
Greenfield said she does see a bright side: Keeping connected from gate-to-gate means she’ll get her money’s worth when she pays for Wi-Fi instead of dealing with spotty in-flight Internet service for a limited time.
The guidelines reflect the evolution in types and prevalence of devices used by passengers over the past decade. A survey by the Consumer Electronics Association this year found that 99 percent of passengers carry some device with them, with smartphones the most common followed by notebook or laptop computers.
The changes announced Thursday by the FAA will apply to U.S. air carriers for both domestic and international flights, but when arriving or departing a foreign country, passengers would have to comply with local laws.
Pressure has been building on the FAA to ease restrictions, which have become more difficult to enforce as use of electronic devices has become ubiquitous. Some studies indicate as many as a third of passengers forget or ignore directions to turn off their devices.
“We did not assume that people were following the rules,” said Michael Childers, a member of the Airline Passenger Experience Association board of directors who served on the FAA’s committee.
But, he said, “That did not convince us that there was not risk.” Childers said Thursday he was troubled by some coverage of the decision that implied the rules were never necessary.
The FAA began restricting 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.
Much 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.
And 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. Childers says he suspects regional carriers might have the most trouble showing that their fleets are “PED-tolerant” because they might have several types of aircraft, or those planes might be older.
“The big airlines are going to want to do this to keep the passengers happy,” he said.
One of those passengers will be Marcelo Salup, a photographer and advertising consultant who said he has questioned pilot friends, flown on private jets, left his devices on during commercial flights and come away from the experience believing the anti-electronic rule was “stupid and arbitrary.”
Keeping it hidden
Salup said he typically sleeps during takeoff, but admits to occasionally keeping his tablet on — and hiding it behind the airline magazine — at the end of the flight.
“That’s it, you keep on reading,” he said. “It’s boring. What are you supposed to do? They say it’s just a few minutes, but in real life it’s about 20 minutes … 20 minutes is a long time.”