On Oct. 31, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced major amendments to the agency’s long-standing rule against the use of portable electronic devices during takeoffs and landings. For anyone who enjoys rocking out to their ‘Air Travel Playlist’ or watching an episode of their favorite TV show during arguably the most unsettling intervals of any given flight, this news is (pun intended) music to your ears.
Prior to the recent reversal, the FAA’s policy had been in place for decades. Airline technicians long suspected that portable electronic devices, when used en masse, would negatively impact an airplane’s operability. As a result, passengers were forced to power off their gadgets for a duration of time (typically 15-30 minutes) after takeoff until the plane ascended at least 10,000 feet, and then once again during the pre-landing descent. But the FAA’s new ruling rejects this notion, pointing to widespread aircraft modifications that safeguard against this form of electronic interference.
The timing couldn’t be better. Ten years ago, roughly 70 percent of airline passengers carried on a portable electronic device; in most cases, this device was a cellular telephone, with battery-powered calculators coming in at a distant second. Today, more than 99 percent of fliers have a portable device in their possession at the time of boarding; cell phones are still the most frequently cited items, but e-readers, tablet devices, and other phone alternatives have become much more commonplace.
There are a couple of catches, though: Internet access will still be somewhat restricted, while in-flight phone calls are still banned. While a handful of airlines ― including Southwest, Virgin America, and Delta ― have begun to offer Wi-Fi service for passengers (albeit with a high price-tag), most carriers are still lagging behind the times. This means that sending emails, Tweeting, sending an IM, and engaging in other Internet activities will not be allowed during landings or takeoffs. Furthermore, many airlines prohibit large laptops, citing the risk of injury from an airborne object in the event of turbulence. And since fliers will still be ordered to switch their smartphones to ‘airplane mode’, accessing the Web via cellular network is not an option, either. So if you want (or need) to go online during the flight, you’ll need to bring along a tablet device.
International flights are another gray area. While the FAA’s new ruling will govern all domestic U.S. flights, passengers who travel overseas may be required to adhere to local regulations pertaining to portable electronic devices. But as Joan Lowy of The Huffington Post notes, most countries adhere to rules that closely mirror those of the FAA anyway ― so watch for changes throughout the world in the years to come.
Finally, it goes without saying that these new rules will significantly diminish the amount of in-flight chitchat between seat neighbors. If you notice that the person next to you is nervous about taking off or landing, be kind and offer him/her a few words of assurance ― or at the very least, hand over one of your ear buds and let them rock out with you.
When do these amendments go into effect? Soon, but not yet. Keep your eye on the news in the weeks to come, and if you have a flight, check the carrier’s website for updates about their portable electronic policy.