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The FAA could loosen its in-flight electronics rules by next year

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please turn off electronic devices in-flight (1020)
please turn off electronic devices in-flight (1020)

The US Federal Aviation Administration is set to loosen its rules on in-flight electronics, The New York Times reports. Members of a review panel, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said they will recommend that the FAA allow "reading ebooks or other publications, listening to podcasts, and watching videos" during takeoff and landing, rather than banning all electronics use below 10,000 feet. That's a somewhat confusing way to describe the changes, but we've previously heard that the FAA will allow e-readers and tablets, so long as they've been switched into "airplane mode." While earlier reports said that cellphones would still need to be turned off entirely, but there's no mention of this here — just the predictable censure of Wi-Fi or cellular signals.

According to the Times, the panel will present its recommendations by the end of September, and the changes should be made next year. If made, the reforms would reverse decades of policy regarding in-flight electronics. The FAA's current rules hold that any personal electronic devices, even in airplane mode, could cause radio interference at critical times. While some tablets have been tested and allowed as electronic flight bags, the agency fears that "on a given flight, there could be hundreds of different PEDs in many different states of function or repair giving off spurious signals."

The change would come after years of pressure and frustration

Despite this, it's presented little hard evidence that electronic devices have caused actual harm during flights. Previous reports have found potential issues with cellphones not in airplane mode — and allowing anyone to talk, text, or use mobile data at any point isn't even on the table. But strong cellular signals are a far cry from the potential radio emissions other devices put out, and the FAA says as much, which is why it lets passengers use cellphones on airplane mode above 10,000 feet. Given the ambiguity, the agency has faced increasing pressure from legislators and consumer advocates to revise what they see as an antiquated system.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has led the charge in Congress, ridiculing the FAA for its resistance to change and arguing that arbitrary regulations undermine respect for more reasonable ones. Julius Genachowski's FCC, likewise, urged the agency to reconsider its ban. But these efforts were preceded by years of frustration, including barbed criticism from The New York Times' Nick Bilton. In March of last year, the FAA told Bilton that it would be taking a new look at the ban, and it formed a committee to examine potential changes in August 2012.

Though the panel was supposed to present its findings by the end of July, that date was pushed back to the end of September; if the Times is correct, it won't be changed again. The message here is also consistent to what we've heard earlier, indicating that at least some of our digital devices will be allowed from boarding to arrival. Let's just hope the FAA changes its rules while we're all still using the products it names.