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.
Brett Snyder, who writes the Cranky Flier blog and does consulting work for airports and airlines, said the rules "will create a bit of a policing problem" for flight crews because they differentiate between device usage in airplane mode and on Wi-Fi signals.
"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 president of the union representing flight attendants at American Airlines said she welcomed the changes because her members are "frankly tired of feeling like hall monitors when it comes to this issue."
"Once the new policy is safely implemented — and we're going to work closely with the carrier to do that — it will be a win-win," Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said in a statement.
The changes will require crew training, Veda Shook, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the largest U.S. flight-attendant union, said in an emailed statement.
Attendants will work to contain safety risks from loose items and "to find creative, science-based approaches" so passengers comply with new policies and pay attention to safety briefings, Shook said.
Lawmakers, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, have said the FAA was moving too slowly to expand usage and threatened to force changes through legislation.
"This is great news for the traveling public — and, frankly, a win for common sense," McCaskill said in an emailed statement Thursday.
Huerta said he had to navigate sometimes intense feelings on the issue.
"There are a lot of strongly held opinions as to whether or not this is interference," he said in the interview. "What we wanted to do was take a thoughtful, science-based approach, which really addressed the question is there a safety hazard. I think we were able to do that."
Back at BWI, some wondered just how much difference the change would really make. Jonathan Cardoni, who was using his phone while waiting to pick up his aunt Thursday, didn't see much value in having a few more minutes to use cellphones and mobile devices.
"It wasn't too hard to turn it off," said Cardoni, who lives in Mount Airy.
His brother, Michael, who reads and plays games on his phone during flights, said he suspects many people leave their phones on anyway, even when they're supposed to turn them off.
Reuters and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun