Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

Airline passengers should be allowed to use their personal electronic devices to read, play games or enjoy movies and music, even when planes are on the ground or flying below 10,000 feet, according to recommendations an advisory panel sent to the Federal Aviation Administration on Monday.

But the panel said that restrictions should remain on sending text messages, browsing the Web or checking email after the plane’s doors have been closed. Passengers can do that only when the aircraft’s Wi-Fi network is turned on, typically above 10,000 feet. The use of cellphones to make voice calls, which was not part of the review, will still be prohibited throughout the flight.

The review was the work of a 28-member panel set up last year to revise current policies.

It provides a road map to changing the policy, but it is now up to the FAA’s administrator, Michael P. Huerta, to decide whether and when to do so.

“The FAA received the report and recommendations today on the expanded use of personal electronic devices,” said Les Dorr, a spokesman for the agency. “The administrator will review the report and determine next steps.”

The panel would maintain restrictions on devices like smartphones and tablets with data communication features that could potentially disrupt some airplane systems. For that reason, those devices should be used only on “airplane mode,” which disables their transmission capability.

This would leave passengers, broadly, the use of tablets, e-readers, and smartphones to use any material — books, music, or movies — that has been downloaded and stored digitally before the flight.

The FAA started its review of current policies over a year ago and appointed the panel to look at the technical aspects of the ban and outline steps to ease restrictions. Policy changes have been long expected by passengers, increasingly frustrated by rules seen as outdated in a tech-driven world.

The FAA recognized the necessity for change, given the proliferation of electronic devices in recent years, particularly smartphones and tablets. The policy is increasingly difficult to enforce. One study suggested that about a third of all passengers did not turn off their devices once on a plane.

In recent years, pilots have reported hundreds of episodes in which they suspected that electronic devices might have interfered with instruments on the flight deck. But the evidence has been largely anecdotal, and neither regulators nor airlines have been able to formally substantiate them.

Airlines, too, have been eager to relax the rules, which are seen often as a distraction for flight attendants forced to police the cabin. They are also expanding the use of wireless systems on board, offering live television and considering streaming movies to passengers’ own devices.

But given the persistent uncertainty, as well as the potential risk, the FAA has taken a more cautious approach.

The effort to regulate electronics on planes began in the late 1950s, when studies found that passengers carrying portable FM radios interfered with radar navigation systems used at the time.

The panel recommended that the FAA require airlines to demonstrate that their planes were immune to electromagnetic interference. Many have done so already when installing Wi-Fi. Once that is done the agency can allow the airlines to lift the restrictions. That could happen next year.

The current policy is that all electronic devices must be turned off once the main cabin doors are closed and until the aircraft reaches 10,000 feet, or descends below that level for landing. Flight attendants’ efforts to enforce the rule can cause tensions with passengers.

Above 10,000 feet, where possible interference is deemed to be less critical and pilots have more time to respond to a problem, passengers are allowed to use laptops, smartphones and tablets provided that their transmission functions remain turned off.

The use of cellphones is not banned by the FAA but rather by telecommunications regulators, because their use in flight could interfere with transmissions between cell towers on the ground.