Airlines allow expanded use of electronic devices in flight

It’s a change so subtle that it may have escaped the notice of many air travelers. U.S. airlines are now allowing so-called “personal electronic devices,” or PEDs, to remain powered up for the entire flight.

The change to the prior requirement that electronic devices remain off until the airliner had reached 10,000 feet came after Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta announced on Oct. 31 that the FAA had determined that airlines could safely expand passenger use of PEDs during all phases of flight once the airlines proved that the devices would not interfere with their planes’ electronics.

Most major U.S. airlines complied quickly and, by the end of 2013, had instituted the change and now allow PEDs to remain on for the entire flight.

PEDs include iPads and similar devices, e-readers like Kindle, digital cameras and even cellular telephones, provided that they are in the “airplane mode.” Wi-Fi service and short-range Bluetooth accessories, like wireless keyboards, are also considered PEDs.

Another change to the prior procedure allows passengers to hold on to their electronic items or put them in the seat back pocket during the actual takeoff and landing rolls. Prior to the rule change, those items had to be stowed in the overhead bins or under the seats.

Full-sized laptop computers are still be required to remain off until the airliner has climbed through 10,000 feet and the flight crew gives permission to turn them on, and must still be stowed for takeoff and landing. 

Despite news releases issued by all the major U.S. airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the procedural change did not receive high-profile media coverage. As a result, the change may have gone unnoticed or simply regarded as a revision in the in-flight announcements by many air travelers.

I admit to being among that number.

Although I flew from Seattle (SEA) to Sacramento (SMF) and back on Alaska Airlines over Thanksgiving, after the new rules had taken effect, I did not notice the change in the cabin announcement until a flight from SEA to San Antonio (SAT) in January. It may have been that the cabin crews hadn’t been provided with a new announcement by Thanksgiving, or it may have been that my attention was simply elsewhere.

The change is reportedly being well received by the traveling public.

"Guest reaction has been very positive to date," Virgin America spokesperson Abby Lunardini told TheTravelPro in an e-mail.

Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) claimed the honor of being the first to submit a plan to allow its passengers to use their portable electronic devices below 10,000 feet. Delta passengers saw the change on Nov. 1.

“All Delta aircraft have completed carrier-defined PED tolerance testing to ensure the safe operation of passenger portable electronic devices during all phases of flight and Delta's plan has been submitted to the FAA for approval,” the airline said in its Oct 31 release on the topic.

Also an early adopter, American Airlines announced the change for its passengers effective 5 p.m. CST Nov. 4. American even took partial credit for the rule modification.

"We know that our customers have wanted additional access to their personal devices on their flights, and we've been working with the FAA for some time to make this a reality,” Jon Snook, American's Senior Vice President of Customer Service, said in a news release. “We're excited to be able to deliver this to our customers because of the FAA's expeditious approval."

American Airlines Group (NASDAQ: AAL) is the holding company for American Airlines and US Airways.

United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) made the change effective Nov. 6, while Alaska Airlines followed suit on Nov. 9. Alaska Airlines is a subsidiary of Alaska Air Group (NYSE: ALK).

To better facilitate the non-stop use of PEDs, Alaska began offering 110-volt and USB power outlets at every seat starting in December, and announced that most of its fleet will be equipped with power outlets by the end of 2014.

Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) joined the party on Nov. 20, noting that the change means passengers “[H]ave the ability to stay connected from the time they step on board a Southwest plane to the time they exit,” the carrier said in a news release, adding that “Southwest is the only airline that offers a gate-to-gate [Wi-Fi] connectivity on the majority of our fleet.”

Virgin America allowed passengers to use PEDs from gate to gate starting Nov. 21 but noted that, while other airlines had already implemented the changes, its fleet of 53 new Airbus A320-family aircraft was the first cleared by the FAA for PED usage during all categories of flight – even during Category (CAT) II and CAT III precision approaches and landings.

CAT II and CAT III approaches are used when visibility is less than 1,800 feet and require more precise navigation equipment with a higher reliance on the aircraft’s electronics. Virgin America’s engineering staff worked to ensure that PEDs would not interfere with radio frequencies used by complex cockpit navigation communication equipment prior to implementing the change.

The FAA’s decision to allow PEDs to remain on was based on input from a group of experts that included representatives from the airlines, aviation manufacturers, passengers, pilots, flight attendants, and the mobile technology industry. The FAA provided a general target date of year-end 2013 for air carriers to “[P]rove to the FAA that their planes allow passengers to safely use their devices in airplane mode, gate-to-gate, by the end of the year,” according to an FAA news release on the topic.

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