The Federal Aviation Administration will allow airlines to expand the use of portable electronic devices such as smartphones, e-readers and tablets during "all phases of flight," according to a news release issued Thursday by the agency, though it may be months before passengers are able to take advantage of the relaxed rules.
The new policy, once implemented, will allow passengers to use the devices during taxiing, takeoff and landing as long as the devices are in "airplane mode," meaning not connected to cellular service. Airborne phone calls remain off limits because they are prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission due to concern that phones on planes flying at high speeds will strain the ability of cellular networks to keep up.
Kristie Greco, an FAA spokeswoman, said revisiting the roughly 50-year-old rules on what devices passengers may use in flight was a priority of FAA administrator Michael Huerta, who was sworn in to lead the agency in January.
"When the regulations were first put in place, many electronic devices interfered with the plane avionics," Ms. Greco said, referring to instruments and communications systems. "Clearly, technology has evolved and so has plane avionics."
The announcement follows a determination by the Portable Electronic Device Aviation Rulemaking Committee, a group of aviation industry and mobile device experts assembled by Mr. Huerta, that "most commercial airplanes can tolerate radio interference signals from PEDs," the FAA news release says.
However, it remains up to individual airlines to "determine how and when they will allow passengers broader use of PEDs."
As of May, 56 percent of American adults had a smartphone, according to the Pew Internet Project, an offshoot of the Pew Research Center. As of September, 35 percent of Americans age 16 and older owned a tablet.
Mr. Huerta "recognized there was a strong public interest in expanding the use of devices on planes," Ms. Greco said. "He wanted to ensure safety was a priority."
The news was largely met with shrugs Thursday afternoon by passengers and their families at Pittsburgh International Airport.
"What I always wondered about it was, it's just during takeoff and landing," said Mike Connors, 57, of Churchill, who had both his smartphone and tablet in hand while waiting to pick up his brother. "It's either you can't do it or you can. ... If it's dangerous while you're landing, it should be dangerous while you're in the air."
Dan Johnson, 30, of the North Hills, said it made little sense that the FAA restricted the use of the devices in the absence of any evidence that they disrupted flight operations.
"I think it's dumb that they restricted it for so long," Mr. Johnson said. "It's good they listened. It'll be more convenient for everybody."
Pittsburgh International Airport's biggest operator, US Airways, which averaged 43 flights a day out of Pittsburgh in October, says in a news release that the recommendations from the FAA will allow the airline to "transform the customer experience."
US Airways completed installation of in-flight Wi-Fi Internet access on 90 percent of its domestic fleet and offers Wi-Fi access above 10,000 feet.
The changes won't take effect until airlines demonstrate that their planes meet the new guidelines and training manuals, safety announcements and rules for stowing the devices have been updated.
"Due to differences among fleets and operations, the implementation will vary among airlines, but 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.
Robert Zullo: email@example.com or 412-263-3909. The Associated Press contributed.