U.S. considers expanding tablet, e-reader use on flights

Reuters

By Alwyn Scott

NEW YORK, Sept 30 (Reuters) - U.S. aviation regulators beganconsidering on Monday how to let airplane passengers makegreater use of laptops, tablets and e-readers on board, whilestill ensuring the devices don't compromise flight safety.

The suggestions, contained in a long-awaited report, are ahot-button issue for passengers, many of whom have chafed understrict rules that require portable electronic devices be turnedoff for takeoff and landing.

Some passengers fear their devices will imperil a flight bydisrupting navigation or radio signals. Others consider therisks remote and leave devices on during those critical phasesof flight when planes are most prone to accidents.

The report by an industry-government committee recommendsallowing tablets and e-readers to remain on at altitudes below10,000 feet on newer planes that are designed to resistelectronic interference, but says larger devices such as laptopsor DVD players should still be stowed for takeoff and landing sothey don't pose a physical hazard, according to people familiarwith the matter.

There are no recommendations to alter the devicesthemselves; however, older aircraft may need further checks toensure they won't be affected by interference, these peoplesaid. Personal cell phone calls weren't considered by thecommittee, and would still be banned during flights.

The recommendations arose amid intense interest from thepublic and some members of Congress, prompting the U.S. FederalAviation Administration last year to set up a committee torecommend how the rules should change.

The committee began work in January aiming to conclude insix months. In July it got a two-month extension to come up withguidance on how airlines can assess the safety risks posed tocritical flight systems and develop a policy on stowing devicesthat would work with expanded use of the devices.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta "will review the report anddetermine next steps," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said Monday.

OLD PLANES, NEW DEVICES

Restrictions on portable electronics on flights havesimmered for decades. The FAA first set rules in 1966 to governin-flight use of FM radios, the hot new technology of the day,after studies showed they interfered with navigation.

Many of the older aircraft remain in use and "are assusceptible today as they were 45 years ago," the FAA said.

The switch to electrical aircraft steering mechanisms fromolder systems of pulleys, cables and hydraulics posed furtherrisk to the plane, since those critical flight controls, knownas "fly-by-wire" systems, added to the components that could beaffected by electrical interference.

Current commercial airplanes models, made by Boeing Co, Airbus, Embraer SA and BombardierInc, are designed to resist interference from portableelectronic devices.

But some older fly-by-wire planes don't have suchprotection, the FAA said. And even the more recently madeaircraft carry delicate navigation and radio equipment that canbe influenced by "spurious radio frequency emissions" fromportable electronics.

Meanwhile, portable electronics have been revolutionized.Many emit cellular, Bluetooth and internet signals and eventhose that don't can put out low-power signals that move onradio frequencies, the FAA said. E-readers, for example, canemit a signal when the user turns a page, the FAA said. Adamaged device can transmit an even more powerful signal.

So far, the FAA has banned use of portable devices in flightunless airlines have determined they don't pose a hazard.Accordingly, the committee suggested standards airlines canfollow to determine if older planes can withstand interference,much as airlines do with inflight WiFi and entertainmentsystems, one of the sources said.

Private jets follow the same FAA guidelines and restrictionsas commercial planes when using portable electronic devices,according to Netjets, a corporate jet leasing company.

Some electronic device makers have taken their own steps toprove their devices are safe. In 2011, Amazon.com tested devices by putting lots of them on a plane and seeing ifthey interfered with the plane's systems. They didn't, andAmazon submitted that report to the FAA, the company said.

Amazon, which sells both the Kindle Fire tablet and varietyof Kindle e-readers, was the only device maker to have a directseat on the 28-member committee, though the Consumer ElectronicsAssociation also was a member.

Drew Herdener, a spokesman for the Seattle-based company,said in a statement that the endorsement of broader use ofelectronics in flight is "a big win for customers."

"Frankly," he added, "it's about time."

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