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FCC urges FAA to rethink electronic-devices-on-planes rule

Air travelers who dread the moment when they have to turn off their smartphones and tablets on planes appear to have a powerful ally in the quest to change the rules: the government.

The head of the Federal Communications Commission has reached out to the Federal Aviation Administration to urge the FAA to enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable electronic devices during flight.

“I support the ... (FAA) initiative to review the policies, guidance and procedures regarding the use of such devices,” wrote FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to Acting FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta, in a letter dated Thursday.

“This review comes at a time of tremendous innovation, as mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives.”

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.

But in August, the FAA announced it was forming a working group to take a new look at 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.  

The panel will not consider the use of cell phones for calls during flight, which is prohibited under FCC rules. 

The working group -- which has yet to be fully assembled -- will include representatives from the mobile technology and aviation manufacturing industries, pilot and flight attendant groups, airlines, and passenger associations.

In his letter, Genachowski names Julius Knapp, who heads the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology, as the FCC’s point of contact in the process.

The FCC declined to comment further, referring all questions to the letter. The FAA had no comment on Genachowski’s letter. 

Earlier this year, the FAA noted that the FCC will be a key partner in coming up with recommendations that might allow more widespread use of gadgets during flight “while maintaining the highest levels of safety for the passengers and aircraft.”

Industry observers point 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.