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Attention fliers: FAA to study policies on electronic devices

It’s a routine as familiar to air travelers as taking off their shoes at security, and to some just as annoying: turn off all your favorite gadgets when the plane is preparing for takeoff or landing.

But changes may be on the way.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday announced it’s forming a working group to study the government’s policies on portable electronic devices — such as iPads and Kindles — as well as the rules airlines follow to decide when they can be used. 

“With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement.

“We must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight.”

Under the current rules, fliers can’t use tablets, laptops and e-readers when a plane flies below 10,000 feet because of concerns the gadgets could interfere with aircraft instruments, according to the FAA. Any potential disruption could be riskier at a lower altitude when the crew is preparing for takeoff and landing.

There are similar regulations around the world, said Kevin Hiatt, chief operating officer for the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation and a former pilot for Delta Air Lines.

“We’ve taken a conservative approach,” Hiatt said. “It’s not an unreasonable demand based on the fact that there are so many devices out there that we don’t know exactly what each might do.”

But Hiatt pointed out the last studies to examine the impact of portable electronic devices on aircraft instruments are old — dating back to 2006 or so, or long before many of today’s most popular gadgets came on the market. The Kindle, for example, debuted in 2007, while the iPad was introduced in 2010. The number of passengers bringing along the devices has since exploded.

Then, there’s the issue of passenger tension when told to turn off the devices. In one of the most publicized incidents, actor Alec Baldwin was kicked off an American Airlines flight last December when he didn’t power down his iPad when instructed to do so.

Not long after, the government began allowing some pilots to use iPads in the cockpit, prompting grumbling of a double standard. Hiatt noted those specific devices were thoroughly tested to see if they were safe to use on the flight deck, while testing remains to be done on all the other gadgets passengers carry.

Many flight attendants also feel they’ve been put in the position of being the enforcers of the policy, leading to more on-board animosity between travelers and crew.

“It’s time for us to either verify that we want to keep the rules in place or go ahead and modify as necessary,” Hiatt said.

“It’ll be complicated ... (but) let’s get some better rules around this and some better understanding so it takes a little bit of the edge off with the passenger.”

Airlines can allow unlimited use of portable electronic devices if they can prove the gadgets are safe, but carriers haven’t been doing the testing because they would have to check each one of the hundreds of smartphones, tablets and e-readers available on the market, sources said.

It’s one of the issues the FAA’s working group will tackle. The panel — which will include representatives from the mobile technology and aviation manufacturing industries, pilot and flight attendant groups, airlines, and passenger associations — will be established this fall and meet for six months.

As the first step, officials want your input: you can weigh in on the issue in the Federal Register starting Tuesday.

The working group will not consider changing the rules that ban passengers from making calls on cell phones during flights.

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