Tablet and smartphone ban on airplanes may be relaxed

Recommendations outlined in report set for Sept. release

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SAN FRANCISCO -- A working group assigned by the Federal Aviation Administration to research use of electronics on airplanes is expected to recommend relaxing the ban on portable devices during takeoff and landing. But the group has postponed its final report until September, two months after its original deadline.

The group is expected to endorse permitting a wider use of devices during takeoff and landing, including tablets and smartphones used only for data, said a panel member, who declined to be named because members are not permitted to discuss internal deliberations publicly. Speaking on cellphones will still be barred during all flight phases, the person said. These recommendations are outlined in a draft document the panel member has seen.

The panel hopes to allow "gate-to-gate" use of electronics, the person said, meaning devices could be left on in a limited "airplane mode" from the moment the gate door closes on the tarmac until the plane arrives at its destination gate. But panelists are still concerned about use of electronics during landing, the person said, so the recommendation could change.

The advisory group was supposed to deliver its findings by July 31, but it asked the FAA for an extension until September, which the agency granted.

"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," an FAA statement said.

Last year, the FAA began approving pilots' use of iPads in the cockpit in place of paper navigation charts and manuals. But under current FAA guidelines, travelers are told to turn off their tablets and e-readers for takeoff and landing. The rules date to 2006, before tablets and smartphones were commonplace. Under those standards, the FAA permits passengers to use electric razors and audio recorders during all flight phases.

During the last two years, the FAA has come under increased pressure to relax the rules for passengers' devices on planes. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has threatened to introduce legislation to overturn the rules if the FAA does not act. "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," she said Friday.

A yearly report compiled by NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System has found no evidence that consumer electronics interfere with a plane's avionics. In December, the Federal Communications Commission urged the FAA to relax the takeoff and landing device rules.

Not everyone supports lifting the ban. Some say there are good reasons to bar electronics use on planes beyond whether they produce electrical interference. "The broader picture here is that all carry-on items are to be stowed completely for considerations of physical safety: reduced likelihood of loose objects in the cabin," David Carson, a former co-chairman of a group the FAA commissioned in 2006 to explore dangers of devices on planes, said in an email. "There is also the factor of reducing distractions, so passengers are more likely to pay attention to flight attendant announcements."

The FAA created the working group last year, and it first met in January. It comprises people from various industry-related groups such as, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Association of Flight Attendants, the FCC and aircraft makers.

Airline stewards have also been asking for a rules change. In an interview last year, Stacy K. Martin, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents more than 10,000 flight attendants, said current rules were too stringent, and flight attendants did not want to police passengers. "We're not going to be able to get anything done if we have to ask people if they're wearing sunglasses or computer glasses, and if their watch is a computer," he said, a reference to wearable computers passengers may soon be bringing on flights.

A study recently released by the Airline Passenger Experience Association and the Consumer Electronics Association found that as many as 30 percent of passengers said they had accidentally left a device on during takeoff or landing.



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