June 21, 2013 at 8:00 AM ET
Federal officials could be loosening restrictions on those personal electronic devices airline passengers hate to put away at the beginning and end of their flights, NBC News reported Friday.
The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to relax the ban on devices that now need to be completely shut off before a flight takes off or lands. Passengers currently must turn those gadgets off below 10,000 feet. Under new rules being considered, cell phones would still be off limits but other devices, such as e-readers, would be permitted for use during the entire flight.
In previewing the rule-changes, the FAA also announced it was pushing back the deadline for its recommendations to September.
The strict prohibitions against onboard electronics were developed in the 1960's, but the group's findings acknowledge that modern planes are much more secure against electronic emissions and devices are designed to work within a tighter frequency range.
The proposed rules are based on suggestions from a 28-person advisory panel studying the impact of electronic devices on flight safety.
"The FAA recognizes consumers are intensely interested in the use of personal electronics aboard aircraft, that is why we tasked a government-industry group to examine the safety issues and the feasibility of changing the current restrictions,” the agency said in a statement.
“At the group's request, the FAA has granted a two-month extension to complete the additional work necessary for the safety assessment. We will wait for the group to finish its work before we determine next steps."
The expected decision would come after years of mounting political and passenger pressure to relax the rules. In December, the head of the FCC wrote the acting Acting FAA Administrator to voice his support of the FAA rethinking the use of personal electronic devices on planes.
Experts say this is a step in the right direction.
"The FAA knows it was fighting an uphill battle," Dr. Joe Schewieterman, a professor at DePaul University who has documented the use of onboard electronics, told NBC News. "The public was growing skeptical that the old approach made sense."
Part of the public's doubts may stem from the fact that there's been no documented instance where passengers leaving their devices on have brought a plane down.
Additionally, up to 30 percent of passengers admit they haven't always turned their devices off during the critical takeoff and landing periods of flight, a study by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) and the Consumer Electronics Association in March found. The FAA panel's working draft cited the APEX research. APEX executive director Russell Lemieux, told NBC News, "the agency’s statement today seems to be an encouraging step towards easing some of the restrictions that passengers noted in our survey. "
According to a Wall Street Journal report, the draft recommends airlines install protective shielding to defend against potential electronic emissions and for planes to go through stringent tests to see how much signal interference from passenger devices they can withstand.
Depending on how well the aircraft perform, the draft foresees three different modes of allowable gadget use, and three different safety announcements flight attendants could make.
In a sort of "fasten your seatbelt" sign for electronic devices, on flights with limited shielding, passengers will be told to keep their devices off until told they can turn them on.
During flights on planes falling in the middle of the tolerance range, flight attendants would okay using specific kinds of electronics from gate to gate. But during rare landings requiring specific kinds of instruments, the captain would ask passengers to power off devices.
And on a third category of planes, passengers would hear the in-flight announcement, "This aircraft tolerates emissions from electrical devices for all phases of flight."
Despite the loosening restrictions, flights are unlikely to become filled with passengers chatting on their phones.
"I don't think they'll go so far as to allow cellphone communication under 10,000 feet," Jason Rabinowitz, an APEX contributor, told NBC News. "I do think we're at the point where they'll allow iPads or e-readers in airplane mode."