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FAA to allow air travelers to go the distance with electronic gadgets

Within weeks, travelers will be able to operate iPads, Kindles and even smartphones throughout a commercial flight, but calls will still be banned.

October 31, 2013|By Hugo Martín and W.J. Hennigan

Score one for the weary air traveler.

Ever-increasing baggage fees, vanishing leg room and invasive security screening measures have made air travel hellish for millions of passengers. Now the government is giving fliers more screen time with their gadgets.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday that it will ease restrictions on the use of portable electronic devices during takeoffs and landings. Within a few weeks, travelers will be able to operate their iPads, Kindles and even smartphones throughout a commercial flight, though phone calls will still be banned.

The agency has given in to the reality that most Americans aren't happy when denied these beloved digital companions, which pose little threat to safety on a plane, industry experts say.

About 90% of airline passengers board a plane packing hand-held devices and laptops, and at least 40% said they would like to use those gadgets throughout the flight, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Electronics Assn., a trade group for the electronics industry.

"The FAA had a blinding glimpse of the obvious," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with consulting firm Hudson Crossing. "It's nice for airlines to be able to give something back to their customers."

He estimates the rule change will give passengers an extra 35 to 40 minutes per flight with their devices.

For Ryan Middlekauff, the change in policy couldn't come soon enough.

"When I'm on a plane, I don't want to talk to anyone," said the L.A. mortgage banker. "Just let me plug in and leave me alone."

But the FAA made it clear that cellphone calls from a plane are still forbidden because of concerns that cell signals might interfere with communications systems.

The rule against using hand-held electronic devices on commercial flights has its roots in the early 1960s — an era of transistor radios, rotary phones and record players. At the time, the FAA was worried that signals could meddle with an aircraft's avionics.

The rule, which previously called for passengers to pocket their devices on takeoffs and landings, until an airliner hits 10,000 feet, has been altered and updated over the years. But it wasn't until the recent rise in the popularity of digital technology that the FAA considered lifting the outdated restrictions.

Under the new rule, passengers will be able to use devices that are switched to "airplane mode" and are not emitting a signal.

Not everyone is happy with the change.

Pilots worry that passengers won't shut their devices down during emergencies. The Air Line Pilots Assn., the world's largest pilot union that represents nearly 50,000 pilots, said it is concerned about relying on passengers to selectively turn off their devices during times of extremely poor weather.

It "is not a practical solution," the association said in a statement. "We urge passengers to realize the potential seriousness of using a device at a time when any crew member — pilot or flight attendant — has advised them that it is unsafe to do so."

Some flight attendants and travelers predict more delays and frustration caused by fliers who stumble onto planes with their eyes glued to a touch screen.

Dwight Lewis, a retired store display manufacturer from El Segundo, said he already sees passengers ignoring the flight attendants' admonitions to shut down their smartphones. The rule change will only mean more passengers ignoring instructions from flight attendants, he said.

"Since half the people don't follow the rules now, expect more when more devices are allowed," Lewis said. "There are a lot of jerks flying that pay zero attention to what they are told to do."

Still, flight attendants unions say they will work to implement the new rules to ensure passenger safety.

"We're frankly tired of feeling like 'hall monitors' when it comes to this issue," said Laura Glading, president of the Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents 16,000 attendants at American Airlines.

Before the changes take effect, the FAA will require airlines to prove that using such devices is safe for their aircraft. Industry officials warn that the policy, once adopted, could vary from airline to airline.

Joe Brancatelli, an online columnist on business travel, said that the announcement could lead to confusion among passengers as each individual airline goes to certify its fleet.

"The announcement isn't a blanket-wide industry thing," he said. "It's airline to airline, so it could get ugly."

The FAA predicted that most airlines will adopt the new policy on electronic devices by the end of the year, but some industry experts say it may take longer. Brancatelli said he wouldn't be surprised if airlines weren't ready by the highly traveled holiday season.

Because no airline wants to be the only carrier to impose unpopular restrictions, Delta, American and JetBlue airlines were quick to announce they will begin adopting the changes.

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