Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
Airline passengers soon will be able to use electronics such as readers and games during takeoffs, landings and throughout flights, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday.
Before the new rule takes effect, airlines must demonstrate that aircraft won't be at risk because of potential interference from portable electronic devices.
That is expected to take place quickly and the devices approved for use by the end of the year in most of the nation's airline fleet.
Connecting to the Internet remains prohibited when the plane is less than 10,000 feet in the air. Voice calls also are banned during the entire flight, under a Federal Communications Commission rule.
Passengers now must turn off electronic devices during takeoffs and landings and when the aircraft is flying under 10,000 feet. Passengers should continue to follow all instructions from flight crews regarding the use of the devices, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.
"We believe today's decision honors both our commitment to safety and consumers' increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of flight," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.
Flight attendants welcomed the opportunity to ease enforcement of the prohibition against gadgets. Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said the change in rules will benefit passengers and crew members.
"Once the new policy is safely implemented - and we're going to work closely with the carrier to do that - it will be a win-win," Glading said. "We're frankly tired of feeling like 'hall monitors' when it comes to this issue."
Jenny Dervin, spokeswoman for JetBlue Airways, said the airline has already completed the first phase of FAA review.
"We intend to be the first airline to allow fleet-wide PEDs," Dervin said.
Electronics have always been allowed once a plane reaches 10,000 feet in the air. On planes that are equipped with their own wifi hot spots, passengers have been able to connect to the internet while the flight is cruising.
But Thursday's decision marks a major change for passengers eager to keep reading an electronic book, listen to music or play a game while the plane is less than 10,000 feet in the air, when those activities have been prohibited.
The decision follows a report Sept. 30 from a 28-member committee representing airlines, manufacturers, electronics makers, pilots and flight attendants.
The prohibition against electronics began decades ago because of concerns about interference with cockpit communications and navigation equipment. But passengers have sought easier use of their gadgets as electronics become more widespread and as aircraft equipment has become less susceptible to stray signals.
Consumer groups and lawmakers such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have argued that electronic readers are no more dangerous than books during takeoff and landing. "This is great news for the traveling public-and frankly, a win for common sense," McCaskill, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, said of the FAA's decision. "I applaud the FAA for taking the necessary steps to change these outdated regulations and I look forward to the airlines turning around quick plans for implementation."
The Association of Flight Attendants voiced support for the decision provided that electronic devices are proven not to interfere with onboard communications.
"In order to expand the use of PEDs safely, the commercial aviation industry must first demonstrate that airplanes can tolerate electromagnetic interference from passenger devices," the AFA said. "AFA is a strong advocate for streamlining the testing and validation processes needed to demonstrate this capability, and requiring that airlines and manufacturers complete this work as quickly as possible on all passenger airplanes. At the same time, appropriate policies and procedures, supported by effective crew training programs and focused safety messaging from the industry to travelers, are needed to ensure that expanded use by passengers does not degrade safety and security."
Huerta said in perhaps 1% of flights with low visibility, electronics will still be banned at some points.