FAA OKs Air Passengers to Use Gadgets on Planes During Takeoffs, Landings

Woman listening to mp3 player in first class
Getty Images
By JOAN LOWY

WASHINGTON -- 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 Air Lines (DAL) and JetBlue Airways (JBLU) 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 Wi-Fi 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 an 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 (AMZN). 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.


Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

How to Avoid Financial Scams

Avoid getting duped by financial scams.

View Course »

Timing Your Spending

How to pay less by changing when you purchase.

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

9 Comments

Filter by:
Ava

oh great this was the thing I was worried about not turning on a device. Not lengthy waits, diversions, uncomfortable seats or terrorism. No it was always listening to my music.

November 02 2013 at 6:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
tws1380

Oh Great more bullshit to deal with from the Special People.

October 31 2013 at 7:30 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Dan

They ought to call this the Alec Baldwin ruling. Remember, he was the actor who pitched a fit because he couldn't finish a game of
Angry Birds as the plane was preparing to taxi? I'm sure Alec would be proud.

October 31 2013 at 7:01 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Dan's comment
junior

Why? He still would have to turn his phone off until they reach 10,000'. Says the article.

October 31 2013 at 8:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to junior's comment
Dan

The change in the rules seems to have been brought about by Mr. Baldwin's tantrum. Things have loosened up a little.

October 31 2013 at 8:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
memo

If they allow cell phone use on planes I will stop flying. It is noisy enough plus many passengers are completed pia's. My distance to travel is 900 miles or less, easier and less costly to fly. Plus more comfortable.

October 31 2013 at 6:37 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Larry

I hope they NEVER allow cell phone calls during flights. There is already enough boorish behavior, including wife-beater t-shirts, too much muffin tops exposed, and rude parents with unruly kids. The last thing we need is people screaming into their phones for the entire flight.

October 31 2013 at 3:09 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
khamden

FAA is delusional. People have been ignoring the rules for every flight I've ever been on.
Had a flight last week where 3 people within view never shut off their phones during takeoff and landing.
Flight attendants are oblivious too!

October 31 2013 at 2:56 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
crazy ray

Rejoice? Are you kidding? As if fellow passengers weren't already annoying enough.

October 31 2013 at 1:13 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Ted Langs

Just curious, why can\'t you use email on a plane they sure not on the same frenency. Perhap the Airlines just want you to use their installed phones to call. If people on the ground are sending emails back and forth why doesn\'t it affect aircraft in the air? What is the story about them using emais above 10.000 feet in the air? It is a strange rule and I suppose there is a reason.

.

October 31 2013 at 12:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply