The FAA has been studying gadget use on planes for the better part of a year and has drafted a proposal that would see the current restrictions eased significantly. As it stands today, passengers must turn off all electronic devices once the main cabin door is closed. The gadgets must remain off until the plane takes off and achieves an altitude of 10,000 feet. This general rule is followed by all airlines in the U.S.
The use of personal electronic devices on planes has become pervasive since the rules were put into place nearly 50 years ago, and many feel the devices no longer pose the threat they once did.
A spokesperson for the FAA said the agency "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."
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In its current form, the draft suggests that devices such as e-readers and music players would be allowed, but cellphones would not. The FAA isn't even entertaining that idea. Instead, devices that don't have active wireless connections will be permitted. Cellphones emit radio signals that the FAA still contends might affect wireless networks on the ground when used from an airplane. The FAA will evaluate cellphone use separately.
One of the problems is that many people already break the rules. Passengers often become surly when asked to end phone calls after the cabin door is closed. The issue can be contentious, especially if other passengers become involved. Further, as many as one-third of passengers have accidentally left gear on for an entire flight, which demonstrates that perhaps there isn't much of a risk in their use.
The original rules were put into place because there was a fear that the electromagnetic field generated by electronic devices could interfere with airplane navigation systems. The FAA has already concluded that these magnetic fields are so weak as to be harmless when planes are at high altitudes. Additionally, newer planes have built-in protection systems that prevent the electromagnetic fields from reaching sensitive equipment. Many airlines now offer in-flight Wi-Fi, which means that there are potentially dozens of devices emitting Wi-Fi radio signals when planes are in flight. They have not caused any problems.
The final report was expected to arrive by the end of July, but has been pushed to the end of September so the FAA can finalize its safety guidelines. It is unclear how quickly the FAA will act on the new guidelines once the report is published.