Relief may be on the way for airline passengers who can’t bear to be separated even briefly from their personal electronic devices, as the Federal Aviation Administration moves towards allowing gate-to-gate use of music players, tablets, laptops, smartphones and other gadgets.
Restrictions on cellphone calls and internet use and transmission are not expected to be changed.
An industry-labor advisory committee was supposed to make recommendations next month to the FAA on easing restrictions on using electronic devices during takeoffs and landings. But the agency said in a statement on Friday that the deadline has been extended to September, because committee members asked for extra time to finish assessing whether it’s safe to lift restrictions.
“The FAA recognizes consumers are intensely interested in the use of personal electronics aboard aircraft; that is why we tasked a government-industry group to examine the safety issues and the feasibility of changing the current restrictions,” the statement said.
The agency is under public and political pressure to ease the restrictions as more people bring their devices with them when they fly, in order to read e-books, listen to music, watch videos and get work done. Technically, the FAA doesn’t bar use of electronic devices when aircraft are below 10,000ft. But under FAA rules, airlines that want to let passengers use the devices are faced with a practical impossibility – they would have to show that they have tested every type and make of device passengers would use, to ensure there is no electromagnetic interference with aircraft radios and electrical and electronic systems.
As a result, US airlines simply bar all electric device use below 10,000ft. Airline accidents are most likely to occur during takeoffs, landings and taxiing.
Using cellphones to make calls on planes is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. There is concern that making calls from fast-flying planes might strain cellular systems, interfering with service on the ground. There is also the potential annoyance factor – whether passengers will be unhappy if they have to listen to other passengers yakking on the phone.
Although the restrictions have been broadly criticized as unnecessary, committee members saw value in them. One of the considerations being weighed is whether some heavier devices like laptops should continue to be restricted because they might become dangerous projectiles, hurting other passengers during a crash, the committee member said. There is less concern about tablets and other lighter devices.
“It’s good to see the FAA may be on the verge of acknowledging what the traveling public has suspected for years – that current rules are arbitrary and lack real justification,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, one of Congress’ more outspoken critics of the restrictions, in a statement. She contends that unless scientific evidence can be presented to justify the restrictions, they should be lifted.
Edward Pizzarello, the co-founder of the frequent-flier discussion site MilePoint, said lifting the restriction was “long overdue.”
“I actually feel like this regulation has been toughest on flight attendants. Nobody wants to shut off their phone, and the flight attendants are always left to be the bad guys and gals,” said Pizzarello.
Actor Alec Baldwin became the face of passenger frustration with the restrictions in 2011, when he was kicked off a New York-bound flight from Los Angeles for refusing to turn off his cellphone. Baldwin later issued an apology to fellow American Airlines passengers who were delayed, but mocked the flight attendant on Twitter.
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