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man on plane with tabletThe rules for when to turn off electronic devices on airplanes have long been a sour, and sometimes contentious, point for travelers, reports a recent New York Times article. But “faced with a surge of electronics on airplanes and under pressure from a growing number of tech-savvy — and increasingly tech-dependent — passengers, the Federal Aviation Administration recognized that change was inevitable,” the article says.

This week, an F.A.A. advisory panel will meet to complete its recommendations to relax most of the restrictions. The new guidelines are expected to allow reading e-books or other publications, listening to podcasts, and watching videos. However, the ban on sending and receiving e-mails and text messages, or using Wi-Fi during takeoff or landing, is expected to remain in place. Making phone calls during a flight will still be prohibited as well because mobile voice communications interfere with transmissions between cell towers on the ground.

The panel will recommend its new policy to the F.A.A. by the end of the month and it will most likely go into effect next year, according to the article.

Why so long in coming?

Airlines and pilots have reported hundreds of instances over the years where they suspect electronic devices caused some cockpit instruments to malfunction. But federal regulators have never been able to establish conclusively that electronic devices directly interfered with flight instruments.

As is often the case with large federal agencies, changing aviation safety policy is a slow process. “We have to make sure the planes can handle this. But there’s a lot of pressure on the F.A.A. because passengers are very attached to their devices,” Douglas Kidd, the head of the National Association of Airline Passengers, told the New York Times.  Instead of testing devices, the F.A.A. will ask that the airlines certify that their planes can tolerate interferences — something they have done when installing Wi-Fi on board, for example.

No stopping the wave of electronic devices

More than two billion portable electronic devices will be sold this year, according to the research firm Gartner. Air travelers own a disproportionately large share of these devices, particularly smartphones and tablets, the two electronic tools growing at the fastest rate. Yet today’s most popular devices, aviation experts said, use so little power that they are unable to interfere with a plane’s aeronautics, the article states.

Trying to ensure safety while keeping passengers happy

Flight attendants and safety advocates are concerned that laptops and tablets could turn into dangerous projectiles if a flight encounters turbulence while landing, or if a pilot has to abort takeoff and hit the brakes suddenly, according to the article. The F.A.A. does not ban the devices, but it requires airlines to prove that they pose no flight risk. Since that would mean testing thousands of types of devices, airlines have simply banned their use during takeoff and landing.

Modern jets are packed with electronic systems that are certified to withstand interference from personal electronics. But planes also have a wide range of systems that rely on ground or satellite signals. The F.A.A. has noted that some sensitive navigation and communications systems and surveillance radio receivers “may be susceptible at certain frequencies to spurious radio frequency emissions” from passenger electronics, the article says.

Case study: Surveying its flight and maintenance records from January 2010 and October 2012, Delta Air Lines found that pilots and mechanics mentioned electronic devices as a possible source of interference 21 times in approximately 2.3 million flights. But the airline was not able to confirm these suspicions. Delta concluded that, while the possibility existed, such events were so rare that passengers should be allowed to use their devices in all phases of flight, including takeoff and landing.

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