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FAA softens on-board gadget restrictions

Airline passengers will soon be allowed to use their electronic gadgets in all phases of flight. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has told airlines that they can allow passengers to read e-books, play games, and watch videos on what the organisation calls ‘Portable Electronic Devices’ (PEDs) from gate-to-gate.

PEDs include Kindles, iPads and other tablets, and smartphones in airplane mode; voice calls and texting are still (thankfully?) forbidden but passengers may use Wi-Fi services on their phones during flight.

The decision is based on the findings of a cross-industry panel of experts and answers the increasing number of complaints from technology-hungry travellers. The FAA says it will provide airlines with implementation guidance immediately and it seems that airlines are already scrambling to add this new perk to their service repertoire. JetBlue Airways says it has already “begun the process” with the FAA to become the first airline to expand usage of PEDs. “The rules have caught up with today's technology,” said Robin Hayes, airline CCO. “This new policy vastly improves our customers’ experience, and giving everyone a chance to be more connected is good for business.”

The panel, the PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee, found that most commercial aircraft can tolerate radio interference signals from PEDs, so airlines will now have to verify the tolerance of their fleets before being able to expand usage. The committee did not consider the use of cell/mobile phones. FAA administrator Michael Huerta acknowledged that phones with transmitters left on by mistake would not represent a safety problem, but said the device’s battery would likely be drained by the end of the flight.

There are other restrictions. Heavier PEDs such as laptops will still need to be stowed under seats or in the overhead bins during take-off and landing, while in some instances of low visibility the FAA says landing systems may not be proved PED tolerant, so devices would have to be turned off.

“We believe today’s decision honours both our commitment to safety and consumers’ increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of their flights,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “These guidelines reflect input from passengers, pilots, manufacturers, and flight attendants, and I look forward to seeing airlines implement these much anticipated guidelines in the near future.”

Airlines should start applying the changes by the end of the year.

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