Airline passengers will be able to use their electronic devices gate to gate to read, work, play games, watch movies and listen to music — but not talk on their cellphones — under new guidelines by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
But passengers shouldn't expect changes to happen immediately. How fast the change is implemented will vary by the airline, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference.
Airlines will have to show the FAA how their airplanes meet the new guidelines and that they've updated their flight crew training manuals and rules for stowing devices to reflect the new guidelines. Delta said it was submitting a plan 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 (3,000 metres) 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, the agency said. Passengers will be told to switch their smartphones, tablets and other devices to airplane mode. So, still 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.
Laptops must still be stowed
And 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.
In-flight cellphone calls also will continue to be prohibited. Regulatory authority over phone calls belongs to the Federal Communications Commission, not the FAA. The communications commission prohibits the calls because of concern that phones on planes flying at hundreds of kilometres 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 in recent years to ease restrictions on their use. Critics such as Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, contend there is no valid safety reason for the prohibitions. The restrictions have also become increasingly 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.
Similar to Canadian rules
According to Transport Canada, airlines are subject to the civil aviation rules in their home country, regardless of where they are flying, suggesting that the FAA rules would apply to U.S. airlines flying to and from Canada, but not Canadian airlines flying to and from the U.S.
In an emailed statement, Transport Canada told CBC News Friday that it is "carefully reviewing and assessing the results of the FAA’s study to determine an appropriate way forward for Canada."
Canadian rules on portable electronic devices state that the devices aren't permitted for use when they might "impair the functioning of the aircraft's systems or equipment," but that they can be used with the permission of the operator of the aircraft.
Currently, in Canada, the use of electronic devices is only allowed in the cruise portion of the flight, between takeoff and landing, and calls are only allowed as the planes are taxiing toward the gate after landing.
However, Canadian regulations would theoretically permit the use of electronic devices during takeoff and landing if an airline could demonstrate that such use wouldn't negatively affect the operation of their aircraft, said Transport Canada's Andrea Moritz in an email. That is similar to what the new U.S. rules allow.
Moritz added that such a demonstration "can be challenging and costly" and so far, no Canadian airline has done it.