The FAA is officially allowing the use of some electronics during takeoff and landing, not just while in the air. In a statement, the agency said it was immediately providing guidance to airlines that would let them integrate the new rules. Airlines will need to submit a plan to manage electronics use, including outlines for new flight attendant training, for the FAA's approval. And that approval could come quickly: Delta says it has already completed testing and submitted a plan. Pending the FAA's decision, it could be in place as early as tomorrow.
Passengers will eventually be able to read e-books, play games, and watch videos on their devices during all phases of flight, with very limited exceptions. Electronic items, books and magazines, must be held or put in the seat back pocket during the actual takeoff and landing roll. Cell phones should be in airplane mode or with cellular service disabled — i.e., no signal bars displayed — and cannot be used for voice communications based on FCC regulations that prohibit any airborne calls using cell phones.
What does this mean in the long run? The FAA has posted a set of frequently asked questions to its site, noting that not all airline fleets will be able to implement the regulations right away. Part of the planning phase includes making sure that planes can handle the radio interference signals from devices, as well as changing carry-on and stowing policies to differentiate between light devices like tablets and heavier ones like laptops, which could pose a physical danger in a bumpy takeoff. However, despite previous indications that the rules wouldn't go into effect until next year, the FAA now says we'll be seeing broad changes by the holidays. "The agency expects airlines to allow passengers to safely use their devices in airplane mode, gate-to-gate, by the end of 2013," it writes.
"You're welcome, Toby Ziegler."
The decision comes a month after an investigatory panel officially recommended that passengers be allowed to use personal electronic device at any point during a flight. It's also been years in the making. As smartphones, tablets, and e-readers began to replace magazines as in-flight entertainment, frustration grew at the decades-old regulations meant to prevent radio signals given off by electronics from interfering with the aircraft's own control system. In March of 2012, the FAA said it would take a "fresh look" at the issue, a decision supported by Congress and the FCC. The investigation was never meant to cover texting and phone calls, which are banned under different regulations.
The FAA's change has so far been met with praise. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), one of the strongest critics of the old policy, calls it "a win for common sense." And the director of the National Economic Council, Gene Sperling, ended the official White House statement with a subtle West Wing joke: "You're welcome, Toby Ziegler."
Update: CNET has more information on when airlines could be implementing the new rules. While most are vague on their timetable, JetBlue says it's waiting on approval and could start the policy "as early as this afternoon," and American Airlines will submit its plan tomorrow.