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FAA aims to ban pilots from using gadgets during flights

If the Federal Aviation Authority has its way, pilots won't be allowed to access electronic gadgets for personal use in the cockpit during any part of a flight.

A proposed rule, published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, would ban flight crews from using smartphones, tablets, e-readers and laptop computers for non-work purposes – like sending personal messages and emails, and engaging in “leisure activities” – when they are on duty on the flight deck.

The ban would not apply in cases where pilots need the gadgets for job-related reasons. So captains who work for United Airlines, Alaska Airlines and other carriers that allow pilots to carry iPads instead of heavy paper flight manuals could access those without a problem.

The proposed rule would ensure that FAA regulations conform to legislation passed last year. It would also extend the ban to the entire flight, not just the “critical phases” already covered by regulations put in place to minimize pilot distractions when the plane is taxiing, taking off, landing, or flying below 10,000 feet.

“If it prevents distraction in the cockpit during any time of flight, I think it’s a good move,” said Kevin Hiatt, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation.

“I will tell you that a truly professional pilot would not use a personal electronic device in the cockpit during any phase of flight and they would have their attention focused on the duties at hand,” Hiatt added.

The government began taking action after several troubling incidents involving distracted crews, such as the highly-publicized case of two Northwest Airlines pilots who over-flew their destination by 150 miles in 2009 because they were using their laptop computers for personal activities and “lost situational awareness.”

The Air Line Pilots Association, International – which represents more than 50,000 pilots – is reviewing the proposal and will decide whether to provide any input, spokesman Doug Baj said in a statement to NBC News.

The group “remains involved in efforts to develop guidelines for use of devices in the cockpit that will allow our industry to capitalize on new technology while maintaining the highest possible standards of safety,” he added.

Hiatt, who is a retired airline pilot, said he’s glad the issue is being addressed as more gadgets are making their way onto flight decks.

“Even back before electronic devices came along, you weren’t supposed to be reading books, playing cards, reading newspapers, looking at blueprints of new homes while you’re in flight,” he said.

“It’s a very good thing that we’re finally putting some definition around it because as we’re evolving in this information age with a lot of personal electronic devices, there has to be some more structure put around what you can and can’t do.”

The interesting developments to watch now will be how the government defines personal and work-related use of the devices, Hiatt said.

For example, the proposed rule allows pilots to use the gadgets for emergency communications related to the safe operation of the plane and its passengers, but not a crew member's personal emergency.

Under the rule, it also doesn’t matter whether the device is issued by an employer or owned by the pilot, only whether it is used for FAA approved activity.

The government will accept comments on the rule until March 18.

Separately on Tuesday, a working group studying current rules on the passenger use of portable electronic devices on planes met for the first time.

The group will make recommendations on whether airlines can allow more widespread use of the gadgets in flight in the passenger cabin.