Travelers got quite the Halloween treat when the Federal Aviation Administration announced that airlines would be allowed to loosen restrictions on Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) like tablets and e-readers during all phases of flights. New rules will be gradually phased in, with timing varying from airline to airline, but the long and the short of it is this: You won't have to turn off your computer.
For frequent travelers, this is a godsend. We all know the claustrophobic feeling of scouring 'Skymall' for the umpteenth time or being reduced to reading the fine print on the air sickness bag until we reach cruising altitude. The new decision means that passengers will be able to read e-books, play games, and watch movies throughout their trip with minimal restrictions. Electronic devices simply need to be held or placed in the seat-back pocket during takeoff and landing.
The issue of cell-phone usage, which is the dominion of the FCC, was not mentioned – presumably because cell phones are designed differently from most PEDs in order to send out signals strong enough to travel large distances. Cellular phone calls remain banned, but smartphones in airplane mode (with reception disabled) should be usable at all times. Stewardesses could enforce this by checking for signal bars if it came to that. Short-range Bluetooth accessories, like wireless keyboards, are good to go.
The decision came after extensive research by the FAA's Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee found that most commercial planes could handle the radio interference. The group recommended a new procedure to assess just how much a particular fleet can withstand. Once that tolerance is established, the airline can allow its passengers to use appropriate devices both in the air and on the ground. An exception will be made when visibility drops and any interference with the pilot's instruments becomes dangerous, but that will likely only affect about one percent of flights.
The ruling was based on input from a wide variety of industry authorities, including mobile tech experts, aviation manufacturers, flight attendants, pilots, and (frustrated) passengers. Airlines are aiming to have the new rules implemented by the end of the year – if not sooner. Ideally, by the holiday season you will be able to play Words With Friends through takeoff without ending up in an Alec Baldwinnian brawl with an air marshall. So bring your Nexus 10 and leave the beach reads in your checked luggage.
More information: All iPhones and Android phones have an airplane mode. Just remember to download your podcasts before you board.