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Saturday, June 22, 2013

F.A.A. to Consider Relaxed Rules for Devices on Planes

7:56 p.m. | Updated
A working group assigned by the Federal Aviation Administration to research the use of electronics on airplanes is expected to recommend relaxing the ban on portable devices during takeoff and landing.

But the group has postponed its final report until September, two months after its original deadline.

The group is expected to endorse permitting a wider use of devices during takeoff and landing, including tablets and smartphones used only for data, said a member of the panel, who declined to be named because members are not permitted to speak publicly about internal discussions. Talking on cellphones will still be prohibited during all phases of flight, the person said. These recommendations are outlined in a draft document that the panel member has seen.

News of the draft document was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.The panel hopes to allow “gate-to-gate” use of electronics, the person said, meaning devices could be left on in a limited “airplane mode” from the moment the gate door closes on the tarmac until the plane arrives at the gate of its destination.

But panelists are still concerned about the use of electronics during landing, the person said, so the recommendation could change.

The advisory group was supposed to deliver its findings by July 31, but it asked the F.A.A. for an extension until September, which the agency granted.

“The F.A.A. 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,” a statement from the F.A.A. said. “We will wait for the group to finish its work.”

Over the last two years the F.A.A. has come under increased pressure to relax the rules for devices on airplanes. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, has threatened to introduce legislation to overturn the rules if the F.A.A. does not act.

“It's good to see the F.A.A. may be on the verge of acknowledging what the traveling public has suspected for years - that current rules are arbitrary and lack real justification,” Senator McCaskill said on Friday.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission urged the F.A.A. to relax the rules for devices on airplanes during takeoff and landing, noting that the use of electronics can “empower people to stay informed and connected with friends and family.”

Not everyone supports lifting the ban. Some s ay there are good reasons to prohibit the use of electronics on planes beyond the question of whether they produce electrical interference.

“The broader picture here is that all carry-on items are to be stowed completely for considerations of physical safety: reduced likelihood of loose objects in the cabin,” David Carson, a former co-chairman of a group commissioned by the F.A.A. in 2006 to explore the dangers of devices on planes, said in an e-mail. “There is also the factor of reducing distractions so passengers are more likely to pay attention to flight attendant announcements.”

The F.A.A. created the working group last year. The group, which first met in January, comprises people from various groups related to the industry, like Amazon.com, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Association of Flight Attendants, the F.C.C. and aircraft makers.

Under the current F.A.A. guidelines, travelers are told to turn off their tablets and e-readers for takeoff and landing. The rules date to 2006, before tablets and smartphones were commonplace. Under those standards, the F.A.A. permits passengers to use electric razors and audio recorders during all phases of flight.

Airline stewards have also been asking for a change in the rules. In an interview last year, Stacy K. Martin, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents more than 10,000 flight attendants, said the current rules were too stringent and flight attendants did not want to police passengers. “We're not going to be able to get anything done if we have to ask people if they're wearing sunglasses or computer glasses and if their watch is a computer,” he said, a reference to wearable computers that passengers may soon be wearing on flights.

Last year, the F.A.A. began approving the use of iPads in the cockpit for pilots in place of paper navigation charts and manuals.

A study recently released by the Airline Passenger Ex perience Association and the Consumer Electronics Association found that as many as 30 percent of passengers said they had accidentally left a device on during takeoff or landing. In 2010, 712 million passengers flew within the United States, which means roughly 214 million people accidentally left a device on at least once during takeoff and landing.

A yearly report compiled by NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System has not found any evidence that consumer electronics interfere with a plane's avionics.