One of airline travel’s least-cherished rituals, powering down electronic devices before takeoff and landing, is nearing an end -- with qualifications.
When and how you’re allowed to use your Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN:US) Kindle or Apple Inc. iPhone on U.S. flights will depend on what airline you’re flying, what device you’re using, what aircraft type you’re on, and maybe the weather outside.
Device makers led by Amazon.com, users who want to stay connected, and members of Congress who agitated for the Federal Aviation Administration to change its rules, claimed victory yesterday after agency chief Michael Huerta said it will let airlines apply to broaden electronics use by passengers.
“I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for this change,” said Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV:US) frequent flier Nick Skytland of Houston, a partner at the management consulting company SecondMuse. “I think this ruling will single-handedly make me 50 percent more productive.”
The FAA initially will allow smartphones, tablet computers and MP3 players to stay on throughout flights, including during takeoff and landing phases, if they’re set to so-called airplane mode, which turns off cellular connections.
Users will be able to read or listen to content already on their devices. To surf the Web, download content or play online games at altitudes below 10,000 feet, their flight will have to be equipped with a Wi-Fi service designed to work during those phases. Heavier devices will have to be stowed at those times.
The FAA now prohibits use of personal electronic devices while a plane is below 10,000 feet, with the exception of portable recorders, hearing aids, heart pacemakers and electric shavers. The restrictions are intended to prevent interference with flight controls, radios and navigation equipment.
Mobile-phone calls and text messages will remain forbidden at any time during flight. They are separately banned over concerns that the signals may interfere with ground networks.
Customers of Gogo Inc. (GOGO:US), which says it has 82 percent of the inflight Wi-Fi market in North America, won’t initially benefit from the new rules as its service doesn’t work below 10,000 feet.
The company will evaluate “lots of engineering trade-offs” as it considers whether to make adjustments to allow connections at lower altitudes, Chief Executive Officer Michael Small said in an interview yesterday.
There’s no “fundamental technological barrier” to making the changes with the system that relies on 200 ground towers in the U.S., Small said. He declined to elaborate.
Gogo rose 80 cents, or 4.5 percent, to $18.64 in New York yesterday, after trading as high as $19.20.
The company, based in Itasca, Illinois, says it provides in-air connectivity on more than 2,000 aircraft flown by AMR Corp.’s American Airlines (AAMRQ:US), Delta, United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL:US)’s United Airlines and US Airways (LCC:US) Group Inc., among others.
Allowing broader use of on-board electronics will help Amazon.com, as Kindle owners may have more time to buy and download content, as well as Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM:US), which won preliminary regulatory clearance in May for an air-to-ground broadband service.
“This is a big win for customers and, frankly, it’s about time,” Drew Herdener, an Amazon.com spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.
JetBlue has qualified its entire fleet for passenger electronics during all portions of flights, it said in an e-mailed statement. JetBlue, which doesn’t offer its passengers Wi-Fi, is planning to add that service on some planes by the end of the year, Jenny Dervin, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
Delta allowed its domestic passengers to stay logged on starting at 4:15 p.m. New York time, Paul Skrbec, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. The change doesn’t apply to flights operated by regional carriers under contract with Delta, Skrbec said.
American Airlines said in statements that they’ve started the process of asking the FAA to approve broader device usage. American will submit its plan to the FAA today, Andrea Huguely, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
Brett Snyder, who writes the blog Cranky Flier and does consulting work for airports and airlines, said the rules “will create a bit of policing problem” for flight crews.
“For me, I think one of the concerns is that people are going to pay less attention on the ground to safety demonstrations -- not that a ton of people pay attention anyway -- but it’s just going to cause more distraction,” he said.
It will be important for passengers to stop using devices and pay attention during the safety briefing before each flight, Huerta said.
The Air Line Pilots Association, North America’s largest union for flight crews, said it shares concerns about how the new process will be enforced.
“We remain concerned that relying on passengers to selectively turn off their devices in areas of extremely poor weather is not a practical solution,” the union said in a statement.
Flight attendants at American Airlines welcome the changes because they are “frankly tired of feeling like hall monitors when it comes to this issue,” Laura Glading, president of the group that represents them, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said in a statement.
A coalition of flight attendant unions at United, US Airways and other carriers called for uniform standards for which devices must be stowed on takeoff and landing so passengers aren’t confused.
Reaction from Congress was divided.
“This is great news for the traveling public -- and frankly, a win for common sense,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who had threatened to force changes through legislation.
Senator Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who has oversight over aviation as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, was more skeptical.
“Having access to e-mail or a movie is not worth compromising the safety of any flight,” he said in a statement.
The bar for airlines to get permission to expand electronics use will be higher if a carrier wants its passengers to be able to surf the Internet while pilots land in zero visibility, which requires them to follow radio beams instead of seeing the runway.
Devices allowed on one fleet of aircraft may be prohibited on another under the new policy, and that may mean the speed of implementing the changes will vary, Huerta said. He urged passengers to heed instructions from flight attendants.
“What we’re really striving for is consistency,” he said. “We’re committed to moving very expeditiously.”
Most aircraft in airline service have already passed tests showing they are hardened against radio waves emitted from devices, he said. The new standard updates rules put in place in the 1960s.
“I did feel that, like any regulation that has been around for a long time, the world has changed a lot in the last 50 years, so let’s take a look,” Huerta said at a press conference in Washington’s Reagan National Airport. “And that’s what we did.”
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