Tablets at takeoff: FAA eases rules on devices, but please, hold the calls. (+video)

Airline passengers will be allowed to use their portable electronic devices during all phases of flight, the FAA said, easing outdated restrictions on their use that had rankled critics for years.

By , Contributor

Plane travelers’ entertainment options during takeoffs and landings have now expanded beyond feigning sleep or perusing SkyMall.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Thursday that airline passengers will be allowed to use portable electronic devices during “all phases of flight,” provided that the airline can demonstrate that the devices pose no risk to their aircrafts and that the device is in “airplane mode.” Using cellphones to make calls will still be banned between departure and arrival gates.

The announcement was made after months of FAA-ordered expert review of its policy on the use of laptops, iPods and other electronic devices during flights. FAA regulations had banned use of the devices during taxiing and while flying below 10,000 feet.

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In January, the FAA had established a 28-member advisory committee to review its regulations on portable electronic devices. In recent years, criticism of the administration’s ban had mounted, as gadget-fans noted that the regulation dates to 1966 and was based on studies between 1958 and 1961 showing that radio waves could muddle a plane’s navigation system. Some five decades ago, planes’ insulation against radio waves was far less sophisticated, and there has since been no hard evidence to support the idea that a tablet could bring down a plane, critics said.

"We're flying in a Lockheed Eagle Series L-1011,” the Toby Zeigler character quipped in the 1999 pilot episode of "The West Wing." “Carries a Sim-5 transponder tracking system, and you're telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?"

In September, the panel released its report to the FAA and confirmed the public’s suspicion: aircraft do just fine despite radio interference signals.

Panel membership had included representatives from the mobile technology industry, airlines, aviation manufacturers, passengers, pilots, and flight attendants.

“This is great news for the traveling public – and frankly, a win for common sense,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, who had in recent years waged an earnest campaign for expanded use of the devices, said in a statement.

The new permissions will take effect at varying times for different aircraft carriers, though for most airlines the implementation should be complete within a year, the FAA said. Airlines carriers must prove to the FAA that their planes can safely handle portable device use in flight. No guidelines have yet been released for how airlines can apply for expanded portable electronic device use.

Passengers will still be asked to turn off their devices during the pre-departure safety briefing, as well as in low visibility conditions during landings, the FAA said. Such landings occur in about one percent of flights, it said.

Using cellphones to make voice calls remains prohibited throughout all flights. But phones can be used to connect to games and to other data, so long as they’re in "airplane mode,” which disables cellular connection. WiFi will be available if the aircraft offers a WiFi connection.

In an attention-galvanizing incident in December 2011, an American Airlines pilot kicked Alex Baldwin off a plane for using a cellphone after the plane’s doors had closed and as it readied for departure. Mr. Baldwin tweeted afterward that he had been playing “Words With Friends.”

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