Nov. 01--Airline passengers may no longer hear stern orders from flight attendants to turn off all electronic devices during takeoffs and landings.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday approved the use of personal electronic devices -- such as iPads and Kindles -- during all phases of flight, a move experts said was "reasonable" but not risk free.
Cellphones may stay on, but only in "airplane mode" for the duration of the flight.
"I like that idea because I'm always getting yelled at by flight attendants," said Cari Nogas, 23, of Simsbury, Conn., as she palmed her smartphone at Pittsburgh International Airport. "It's annoying to have to turn it off and put it away."
The FAA based its decision on input from a group that included representatives from airlines, aviation manufacturers, passengers, pilots, flight attendants and the mobile technology industry. The committee concluded most commercial airplanes can tolerate radio interference signals from personal electronic devices. In instances of low visibility, crews will instruct passengers to turn off devices during landings.
How quickly the rules will be relaxed depends on the airlines. An airline must prove to the FAA that its planes can safely tolerate the devices.
Delta said it hopes to get FAA approval as early as Friday.
"All Delta aircraft have completed carrier-defined PED tolerance testing to ensure the safe operation of passenger portable electronic devices during all phases of flight, and Delta's plan has been submitted to the FAA for approval," the company said in a statement.
Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest, said customers wanted the change.
"While specifics of our amended PED policy have yet to be finalized, we plan to work diligently and quickly to implement a process that allows customers this added convenience. The time line will be partially based on the FAA approval process," King said.
Electronics experts said the risk of the change is low but warned that allowing in-flight cellphone use -- out of airplane mode -- would increase the potential for problems.
Dan Stancil, head of the computer and electrical engineering department at North Carolina State University, and Granger Morgan, head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, were part of a 2006 group that studied the effects of cellphones and personal electronic devices on aircraft.
"My feeling is that this ruling is very reasonable. The potential hazard that people are concerned with is that it could put out emissions that could interfere with communications equipment," Stancil said. "I think the danger is small, but nevertheless, you shouldn't discount it. Where the risk is the largest is when you're transmitting a higher power. Cellphones could fit that."
Morgan agreed, saying the risk is not zero. He said airplane black boxes should be equipped to monitor passengers' electronic emissions for excessive interference.
"Airplane electronics have gotten significantly better over the past decade, and airplanes have gotten a whole lot safer," Morgan said. "The problem is that more people may view this as, 'Well, I can use my cellphone now.' (During the study) we saw people making calls during approach and takeoff. Some cellphones cause interference in the GPS band."
Airplanes are particularly dependent on GPS and other sensitive navigation equipment during takeoffs and landings, experts said.
The Air Line Pilots Association, which was part of the FAA committee, said it supports the move -- as long as it can be shown to be safe.
"While we applaud the FAA's view that PEDs use must be shown to be safe before being allowed, we remain concerned that relying on passengers to selectively turn off their devices in areas of extremely poor weather is not a practical solution," the union 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."
Travelers at the airport agreed that safety should be the No. 1 priority but said relaxing the rules is a plus.
"I guess it's OK," said Heddy Hess, 74, of Williamson, W.Va., who has an electronic book reader. "It really didn't bother me one way or the other. You just push a button to turn it off."
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or email@example.com.
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