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All eyes on FAA as decision on in-flight electronics nears

March 26, 2013 at 5:58 AM ET

Video: The Federal Aviation Administration is taking a look at the rules banning use of those electronic gadgets we just can’t seem to live without, including tablets, smartphones, and more. The TODAY anchors chat about these and other hot topics of the day.

The power switch on your favorite e-reader sure gets a workout on flights, thanks to government rules that require electronics to be turned off during takeoffs and landings, but that could change soon.

The FAA may announce within months that it will ease those regulations, allowing reading devices to stay on in “airplane mode,” The New York Times reported Sunday, citing unnamed sources who work with a panel formed to study the issue.

The agency reportedly hopes to make it official by the end of this year.

The FAA declined to comment, with a spokeswoman saying only “there is no new news.” The group's recommendations won’t be released until July 31, she added.

Still, airline industry observers are closely watching the developments. If changes to the current routine are imminent, it’s about time, said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance.

“It’s something that a lot of people have wondered about and it’s one of those rules that just doesn’t seem to make sense. The flying public notices that and they can’t understand why they can’t use something that seems harmless,” Leocha told TODAY.

“I just find it amazing that it’s taking so long to deal with something that appears to be relatively simple.”

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.

Pressure to change the status quo isn’t just coming from the flying public. Last December, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski urged the FAA to rethink the regulations.

That same month, Sen. Claire McCaskill said the current rules are “inconvenient to travelers, don't make sense, and lack a scientific basis.” She also sent a letter to FAA chief Michael Huerta warning him that if the agency didn’t act in a timely manner, she would be "prepared to pursue legislative solutions."

Earlier this month, McCaskill followed up with another letter to Huerta, announcing she was ready to draft the legislation.

“It is preposterous to think that an e-reader in a passenger's hands during takeoff is anymore a threat to other passengers or crew members than a hardback book,” she wrote.

“I hope to see greater leadership from you and the FAA generally in driving changes to the PED [personal electronic device] rules.”

Industry observers point out the last studies to examine the impact of portable electronic devices on aircraft instruments date 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.

At the same time, the government is allowing some pilots to use iPads in the cockpit to replace heavy paper flight manuals, prompting grumbling of a double standard.

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 in 2011 when he didn’t power down his iPad when instructed to do so.

Why is this a big deal for travelers?

“It’s just a pain in the neck, one more thing to worry about,” Leocha said. “[Relaxing the rules] will definitely improve the flying experience.”

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