Airline passengers may no longer have to power off and stow their portable electronics when they fly, the Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday, opening the door for airlines to lift most restrictions on how and when customers can use phones, tablets and e-readers.
The agency said it believes many passengers will be able to safely use devices from gate to gate by the end of the year, as long as they are in "airplane mode," with cellular connections disabled. Some bulky electronics must still be put away for takeoff and landing, the FAA said, and airlines will have to submit their safety plans to the agency for review.
Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, will be "thrilled" to allow customers to use their devices, said Whitney Eichinger, a company spokeswoman. She said the company will know more about the timing of policy changes in coming weeks.
Under the FAA change, passengers will be able to connect with an airline's Wi-Fi network and can use Bluetooth accessories such as a wireless mouse and headphones.
For passengers accustomed to constant connectivity, the reminders to power devices on and off can prove grating. At BWI on Thursday night, Kathy Whitley of Tampa, Fla., said she wants to be able to check email and update Facebook throughout a flight.
"I think it's a reasonable idea," said Whitley, who was waiting for her husband to arrive to join her in visiting friends in Baltimore.
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 were intended to prevent interference with flight controls, radios and navigation equipment.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Thursday he believes the change is justified.
"Most commercial airlines can tolerate radio interference from portable electronic devices," he said at a news conference at Reagan National Airport outside Washington. "It's safe to read downloaded materials, like e-books, calendars and to play games."
Cellphone 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.
"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. "And that's what we did."
Devices allowed on one fleet of aircraft may be prohibited on another under the new policy, and that may mean the speed of implementation will vary, Huerta said.
The bar for getting permission to expand electronics use will be higher if an airline 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.
Some instrument landing systems may never be qualified for operations while passengers read e-books or load web pages, Huerta said.
The FAA is creating a team in Washington that will advise inspectors at individual carriers to help speed up the process, Huerta said in an interview after the news conference.
"What we're really striving for is consistency," he said. "We're committed to moving very expeditiously."
The changes announced Thursday were based on a report by an FAA advisory panel that made its recommendations to the agency in September.
"We've been fighting for our customers on this issue for years — testing an airplane packed full of Kindles, working with the FAA, and serving as the device manufacturer on this committee," said Drew Herdener, an Amazon.com spokesman.
Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways said in statements that they've started the process of winning FAA approvals for broader device usage.
United Airlines is "excited to offer this new benefit because our customers tell us they want to use their portable electronic devices," Luke Punzenberger, a spokesman, said in an email.