But passengers shouldn't expect changes to happen right away, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference. How fast the change is implemented will vary by airline, he said.
Airlines will have to show the FAA how their airplanes meet the new guidelines and that they've updated their flight-crew training manuals, safety announcements and rules for stowing devices to reflect the new guidelines. Delta and JetBlue said they would immediately submit plans to implement the new policy.
Currently, passengers are required to turn off their smartphones, tablets and other devices once a plane's door closes. They're not supposed to restart them until the planes reach 10,000 feet and the captain gives the go-ahead. Passengers are supposed to turn their devices off again as the plane descends to land and not restart them until the plane is on the ground.
Under the new guidelines, airlines whose planes are properly protected from electronic interference may allow passengers to use the devices during takeoffs, landings and taxiing, the FAA said. Most new airliners and other planes that have been modified so that passengers can use Wifi at higher altitudes are expected to meet the criteria.
But connecting to the Internet to surf, exchange emails, text or download data will still be prohibited below 10,000 feet. Passengers will be told to switch their devices to airplane mode. That means no Words With Friends, the online Scrabble-type game that actor Alec Baldwin was playing on his smartphone in 2011 when he was famously booted off an American Airlines jet for refusing to turn off the device while the plane was parked at the gate. Heavier devices such as laptops will continue to have to be stowed because of concern they might injure someone if they go flying around the cabin.
Airline passenger Ketan Patel, 24, said he's pleased with the change and happy that regulators have debunked the idea that the devices pose a safety problem. "If it isn't a problem, it should be allowed," he said as he stepped into a security line at Reagan National Airport near Washington, a smartphone in his hand.
Another passenger entering the same line, insurance marketing manager Melinda Neuman, 28, of Topeka, Kan., was disappointed that she still won't be able to text.
"If you can't download data, what's the point?" she said. "I don't power it off all the time, anyway."
In-flight cellphone calls will continue to be prohibited. Regulatory authority over phone calls belongs to the Federal Communications Commission, not the FAA. The commission prohibits the calls because of concern that phones on planes flying at hundreds of miles per hour could strain the ability of cellular networks to keep up as the devices keep trying to connect with cellphone towers, interfering with service to users on the ground.
An industry advisory committee created by the FAA to examine the issue recommended last month that the government permit greater use of personal electronic devices.
Pressure has been building on the FAA to ease restrictions on their use. Critics such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., say there is no valid safety reason for the prohibitions. Restrictions have also become more difficult to enforce as use of the devices has become ubiquitous. Some studies indicate as many as a third of passengers forget or ignore directions to turn off their devices.
The FAA began restricting passengers' use of electronic devices in 1966 in response to reports of interference with navigation and communications equipment when passengers began carrying FM radios, the high-tech gadgets of their day.
A lot has changed since then. New airliners are far more reliant on electrical systems than previous generations of aircraft, but they are also designed and approved by the FAA to be resistant to electronic interference. Airlines are already offering Wi-Fi use at cruising altitudes on planes modified to be more resistant to interference.
The vast majority of airliners should qualify for greater electronic device use under the new guidelines, Huerta said. In rare instances of landings during severe weather with low visibility, pilots may still order passengers to turn off devices because there is some evidence of potential interference with instrument landing systems under those conditions, he said.
Today's electronic devices generally emit much lower power radio transmissions than previous generations of devices. E-readers, for example, emit only minimal transmissions when turning a page. But transmissions are stronger when devices are downloading or sending data.
Among those pressing for a relaxation of restrictions on passengers' use of the devices has been Amazon.com. In 2011, company officials loaded an airliner full of their Kindle e-readers and flew it around to test for problems but found none.
A travel industry group welcomed the changes, calling them common-sense accommodations for a traveling public now bristling with technology. "We're pleased the FAA recognizes that an enjoyable passenger experience is not incompatible with safety and security," said Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.
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