Airline passengers will be able to use their electronic devices from gate-to-gate to read, work, play games, watch movies and listen to music - but not talk on their cellphones - under much-anticipated new guidelines issued Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
But passengers shouldn't expect changes to happen immediately. How fast the change is implemented will vary by the airline, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference.
Passengers are currently required to turn off phones and other electronic devices while planes are below 10,000 feet to prevent interference with sensitive cockpit equipment as takeoffs and landings are the most critical phases of flight. But newer aircraft are better equipped to prevent electronic interference.
Before the new policy can go into effect, airlines will have to show the FAA how their airplanes meet the new guidelines and that they've updating their flight crew training manuals and rules for stowing devices to reflect the new guidelines. Delta said it was submitting a plan to implement the new policy. Most airlines are expected to finish this process by the end of the year.
“We believe today’s decision honors both our commitment to safety and consumers' increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of their flights,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a FAA press release.
Connections to the Internet to surf, exchange emails, text or download data will still be prohibited below 10,000 feet. However, passengers will be allowed to connect to their airplane's installed WiFi network. Passengers will also be allowed to use short-range Bluetooth accessories, like wireless keyboards.
Heavier devices like laptops will have to be stowed. Passengers will be told to switch their smartphones, tablets and other devices to airplane mode.
Pressure had been building on the FAA in recent years to ease restrictions on their use. Critics such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., contend there is no valid safety reason for the prohibitions. The restrictions have also become increasingly 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 have been offering Wi-Fi use at cruising altitudes to passengers for several years. Planes modified for Wi-Fi systems are also more resistant to interference.
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.
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.
In the rare instance of low visibility, passengers may be advised to turn off their electronic device by their flight crew to prevent interference with the landing system. The FAA says you should always follow the instructions of your airplane's crew.