FAA to allow expanded use of electronic devices during flights

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta announces that government safety rules are changing to let airline passengers use most electronic devices from gate-to-gate. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta announces that government safety rules are changing to let airline passengers use most electronic devices from gate-to-gate. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

By Gregory Karp

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO – U.S. airline passengers soon will be able to continue reading their Kindles and playing on their iPhones and iPads during takeoffs and landings.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday cleared gadgets for takeoff by saying they will be allowed to be used in “airplane mode” during all phases of flight “very soon,” according to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. The FAA is immediately issuing guidance to airlines on how to implement the change, which will vary among airlines.

The rule change will still not allow voice phone calls from wireless phones.

“The agency expects many carriers will prove to the FAA that their planes allow passengers to safely use their devices in airplane mode, gate-to-gate, by the end of the year,” the FAA said in a statement. It’s unclear how many airlines would implement the change in time for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday travel season.

“We already started work to implement this as safely and quickly as possible, and are excited to offer this new benefit because our customers tell us they want to use their portable electronic devices,” said United Airlines spokesman Luke Punzenberger.

The FAA’s current policy forces passengers to turn off most portable electronic devices, such as smartphones, laptops, tablet computers and e-readers, during takeoffs and landings – technically, below 10,000 feet. The fear is that the devices might interfere with flight equipment.

However, surveys have showed that many passengers do not turn off their devices, either intentionally or accidentally. Critics have said the change is a long time coming, sometimes pointing to the fact that many pilots in the cockpit use iPads as part of their “electronic flight bag,” instead of carrying bulky paper navigation charts and manuals.

The change would not only be welcome by the flying public but by such companies as Amazon, which makes the Kindle reading device, and soon-to-be Chicago-based Gogo, which provides inflight Wi-Fi Internet access. Gogo this week announced it would relocate its headquarters and 460 employees to 111 N. Canal St. from its current base in Itasca.

After the change is implemented, passengers will be able to read e-books, play games and watch videos on their devices “during all phases of flight, with very limited exceptions,” the FAA said. Wireless phones should be in airplane mode or with cellular service disabled – no signal bars displayed – and cannot be used for voice calls. A different agency, the Federal Communications Commission, has since 1991 banned inflight use of cell phones because of potential interference with ground networks.

Flight attendants will not be policing whether a device is in airplane mode, Huerta said.

Passengers will also be able to use short-range Bluetooth accessories, such as wireless mice and keyboards.

In rare instances of low-visibility, about 1 percent of the time, flight crews will instruct passengers to turn off their devices, the FAA said.