Ladies and gentlemen, you are now even freer to ignore your flight attendant.
That’s one of the potential outcomes as federal regulators begin to allow airline passengers to use smartphones, tablets, and other electronic gadgets during all parts of the flight. The Federal Aviation Administration had previously restricted the use of such devices below 10,000 feet—a rule widely ridiculed as a technological dinosaur given the enormous advances in aircraft systems and consumer electronics.
The change means you can keep reading a book on your Kindle (AMZN) or iPad (AAPL) as the plane reaches altitude or descends while listening to music on a smartphone, just as long as devices are switched to “airplane mode” to disable any communication ability. Telephone calls and SMS text messages will remain banned during flight. Heavier devices, such as laptop computers, must still be stowed during a takeoff and landing.
The FAA says that signals from portable gadgets do not affect about 99 percent of flights. The at-risk remainder, however, generally occur during airport approaches in bad weather with poor visibilities, in cases where flight crews use radio signals to navigate to a runway. That’s when passengers might be told once again to turn off all their devices, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference today.
“One thing that won’t change: Passengers must take a break from their devices, their reading material, their music, whatever, and listen to the safety briefing before each flight,” Huerta said. “It’s information to save your life.”
The agency will review airlines’ data showing that their planes can handle use of such devices. The process is likely to make policies on using personal electronics different on each airline, at least for a time, although Huerta predicts that most reviews will be completed by year’s end. Delta Air Lines (DAL) says it’s ready to begin allowing the devices as soon as tomorrow, if the FAA approves. JetBlue Airways (JBLU) has also requested permission and wants to be the first carrier to accommodate the devices from “gate-to-gate.”
Unions that represent flight attendants welcomed the change. Laura Glading, president of the union that represents 16,000 American Airlines’ attendants, called the policy an improvement and described her colleagues as “frankly tired of feeling like hall monitors when it comes to this issue.” The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 60,000 U.S. attendants, and the trade group for U.S. carriers, Airlines for America, also welcomed the rule change.
Leslie Mayo, a flight attendant from San Diego with 27 years at American Airlines, predicted that the change won’t compromise safety. Gadgets or no, people have already been ignoring her in favor of magazines or conversations with seat neighbors. “There’s always plenty of distractions now, anyway,” she said.