FAA to allow tablets and e-readers during all phases of flight

Airplane passengers who forgot to bring a magazine will soon have other entertainment options besides browsing SkyMall and the in-flight safety card. The FAA announced Thursday that the agency will be relaxing half-a-century old guidelines on passenger electronic device use during takeoff and landing, allowing the use of tablets, e-readers, dvd players and video game consoles during these critical phases of flight. Phone calls and texting remain banned.

"The world has changed a lot in the past 50 years," said FAA administrator Michael Huerta. "Let's take a fresh look."

The FAA did not set a specific timetable for when passengers could expect to see the device restrictions eased, leaving that to the airlines. "It will take some time for each airline to certify their fleet is safe," said Huerta, "but we expect implementation to be soon."

Delta Air Lines announced shortly after the FAA press conference that its entire fleet has completed carrier-defined PED tolerance testing and has submitted its plan to the FAA for approval.

The FAA's announcement follows a report made to the agency by a 28-member advisory committee in September. The group concluded that most commercial airplanes can tolerate radio interference signals from PEDs.

Devices will still have to be in "airplane mode" or with their cellular connection disabled. WiFi will be allowed as long as the flight has an installed system and allows its use.

Heavier devices, such as large laptops, might still be asked to be stowed during takeoff and landing, because they could become projectiles or block exit paths in the event of turbulence or an accident.

In a rare instances of low visibility, passengers may be asked to turn off all devices on flights whose landing systems are not proven to be PED tolerant.

During safety briefings, passengers will still be required to put down their devices, along with books and newspapers, and pay attention.

Transmitting any kind of signal remains banned during takeoff and landing time via, for instance, a tablet that uses cellular signals for data.

That could put flight attendants in the awkward position of being "tablet police" to make sure passengers are complying. Between the invisibility of the transmission and the variety of the devices on the market, that guideline could spell conflict between passengers and flight attendants.

“It’s going to become more challenging to determine whose device is okay and whose isn’t,” said Kelly Skyles, a 26-year flight attendant and national safety and security coordinator for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union that represents cabin crews at American Airlines. “My greatest concern is that it’s going to put flight attendants at risk for more confrontations.”

Not to mention that passengers will sometimes sneak in a few Words with Friends turns when they think they can get away with it. “You can’t be looking at everybody all the time,” said Tiffany Hawk, a former flight attendant and the author of “Love Me Anyway,” a novel about airline culture. “People are always pretending to turn things off even when they’re not.”

The agency has come under increasing pressure in recent years from passengers, lawmakers and the electronic device industry who have argued the devices pose little threat.

Gadget makers cheered FAA's move. “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 Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener. "This is a big win for customers and, frankly, it’s about time."

Passengers are currently required turn off devices when planes are below 10,000 feet to avoid electronic interference with cockpit equipment during takeoff and landing. There are no confirmed reports of passenger devices interfering with flight navigation devices.

Rob Lovitt contributed to this report.

Contact Ben Popken via ben.popken@nbcuni.com, @bpopken, or benpopkenwrites.com.