Gadgets, airplanes, and you: What's up with the FAA rules

The FAA now says that it's fine and dandy for airline passengers to use their electronic devices in all phases of flight, including takeoff and landing. Here's how the rule change could affect your future flights.

The FAA already lets airlines use tablet computers in the cockpit, without connecting to the Internet, as part of an "electronic flight bag." Relaxed rules on device use are now winging their way back to economy class. Alaska Airlines

Flying will soon be a little more tech-friendly. Gone are the days of flight attendants politely, or not so politely, reminding airline passengers to turn off all electronic devices for takeoff and landing. Imagine using Wi-Fi on your device during the entire flight.

On Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a long-awaited -- and much hoped for -- ruling that airlines can "safely expand passenger use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) during all phases of flight," including during takeoff and landing.

The FAA said that it expects that passengers will see the expanded use of electronics, in airplane mode, by the end of the year, as individual airlines put the relaxed rules into effect. Delta Airlines, in fact, almost immediately followed up the FAA news by saying it expects to start allowing use of gadgets below 10,000 feet as early as Friday, November 1.

The agency based its decision on input from its PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which concluded that most commercial airplanes can tolerate radio interference signals from portable electronic devices.

Under an older set of rules, the FAA already permits the use of personal gadgets, as well as airline entertainment systems and onboard Wi-Fi, once a flight is above 10,000 feet (meaning pretty much the whole flight except for takeoff and landing). In all cases, airlines first have to demonstrate to the FAA that a particular device does not interfere with a plane's electronic systems.

So, what do the rule change mean for you? Here's a look at what we know:

What change is the FAA allowing?
Once airlines put the new rules into effect, passengers will no longer have to turn off tablets, smartphones, e-readers, and other such devices when the cabin door is closed and keep them off until the plane has reached 10,000 feet.

What will I be allowed to do on my electronic devices when I'm on a plane?

Delta passengers can purchase in-flight Wi-Fi via Gogo. Delta
Pretty much anything that doesn't require a device to transfer data, which means you'll still need to turn on "airplane mode" for smartphones and tablets. You can keep playing video games, watching movies, listening to music, and reading e-books as your plane takes off and lands.

Larger, heavier devices -- such as laptops -- will still have to be stowed away during takeoff and landing so they don't pose a physical hazard.

Will I have to turn off my gadgets at all?
In the immediate future, yes, probably. The current, more restrictive rules remain in effect until each individual airline completes a safety assessment, gets FAA approval, and changes its own PED policy. But again, the FAA expects the more relaxed rules to take hold in the last two months of this year.

Also, the FAA said, "in some instances of severe weather with low visibility, the crew should continue to instruct passengers to turn off their devices during landing." Those instances of low visibility, the agency said, constitute only about 1 percent of flights.

What about using Wi-Fi on flights?
That's a go. The FAA says you'll be able to use the Wi-Fi connection on your device if the plane has an installed Wi-Fi system and the airline allows its use. And you'll continue to be all set to use short-range Bluetooth accessories, like wireless keyboards.

Airlines typically turn on access to onboard Wi-Fi once a flight reaches 10,000 feet, but using that Wi-Fi can be expensive and painfully slow. If airlines were to offer expanded Wi-Fi service, even during takeoff and landing, you likely still wouldn't be able to do things like stream videos from Netflix or download iPad games. But if you're excited about posting to Facebook while in the air and are willing to fork over cash, this rule change could be good news for you.

Devices would still need to be in airplane mode to restrict cellular data, but Wi-Fi can be switched back on independently. Here's our guide to getting the most out of in-flight Wi-Fi that airlines currently offer.

Is gate-to-gate Wi-Fi access something you'd pay for? Delta

Can I make cell phone calls during the flight?
No. Since 1991, the use of mobile devices to make voice calls during a flight has been banned by the Federal Communications Commission because of potential interference with ground networks. The FAA panel did not review the use of cell phones for in-flight calls, which are still prohibited. However, the FAA does permit cell phone calls once a plane has landed and is taxiing to the gate.

Don't some airlines allow cell phone calls during flight?
Some international airlines, such as Emirates, do allow passengers to make calls with mobile devices during select flights. But even these carriers must disable the service within 250 miles of the US to meet FCC regulations.

Why did the FAA impose these annoying rules in the first place?
In 1966, the FAA set its first regulations regarding portable electronic devices after it found that portable FM radios caused interference with navigation and communication systems on aircraft.

Since that initial rule, the FAA conducted several studies (PDF) on devices and eventually ruled in the 1990s that "non-transmitting devices" such as tape and CD players posed very little risk of interference. That's when the FAA adopted rules allowing the use of devices "during phases of flight where the impact of interference would be low" -- meaning above 10,000 feet -- but restricted use during "critical phases of flight" -- meaning takeoff and landing. These are the rules that are still in place today.

An FCC regulation prohibits the use of cellular devices while in flight.

When are these changes going to happen?
Pretty much as soon as the airlines go to the FAA one by one and say please, assuming they want to. And why wouldn't they? The airlines love to make passengers happy, no? The FAA's expectation is that this will all be taken care of by the end of 2013.

Airlines, of course, must demonstrate that their planes are immune to electromagnetic interference before any restrictions are lifted, but this isn't a huge issue since many airlines have done so already when installing Wi-Fi, reported The New York Times.

What devices will be able to stay turned on?
Pretty much all electronic devices -- smartphones, tablets, and laptops -- will be allowed to stay turned on under the new recommendations, but transmitting data will still be restricted. Meaning everything needs to be in airplane mode once the cabin door closes.

Who recommended these changes?
Set up by the FAA last year , the 28-member panel -- formally called the Portable Electronic Devices Advisory and Rulemaking Committee -- includes members from the mobile industry, aviation manufacturing, as well as pilot and flight attendant groups, airlines, and passenger associations. The committee's objective was to make recommendations and clarify guidance on allowing additional portable electronic device use without compromising safe operation of airplanes.

You can see the full list of members here (PDF).

American Airlines

Why are they changing the rules now?
The FAA started its review of policies more than a year ago amid consumer pressure to relax the rules in an increasingly tech-oriented world.

When the committee was first announced in August 2012, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, "With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest." He added, "Safety is our highest priority, and we must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight."

What does Alec Baldwin think about all this?
Wouldn't we all like to know? The "30 Rock" actor got removed from an American Airlines flight back in December 2011 for refusing to stop playing Words With Friends. Before the flight took off, airline attendants told Baldwin to turn off his device. According to American Airlines, Baldwin refused -- using a few choice words -- and took his phone into the lavatory. After this, the airline decided to remove him from the plane.

Baldwin told his side of the story on Twitter: "Flight attendant on American reamed me out 4 playing WORDS W FRIENDS while we sat at the gate, not moving. #nowonderamericaairisbankrupt." Meanwhile, his spokesperson also told ABC News that Baldwin loves the game so much that he was willing to leave a plane for it. He added that Baldwin had gotten a spot on another American Airlines flight shortly after being taken off the first.

Did we miss anything? Please drop any questions you still have in the comments, and we'll do our best to get an answer and further update this FAQ.

Editors' note: This FAQ was originally posted on October 2, in anticipation of the FAA's formal rules change. It has been updated to reflect the actual FAA announcement.

 

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