These days, it takes at least five reminders to get people to turn off their electronics, and even then, it doesn't always work. I think some passengers believe they're the only ones using their devices, but it's more like half the airplane doesn't want to turn it off. —Heather Poole, flight attendant
WASHINGTON — The government is moving toward easing restrictions on airline passengers using electronic devices to listen to music, play games, read books, watch movies and work during taxiing, takeoffs and landings.
An industry-labor advisory committee was supposed to make recommendations next month to the Federal Aviation Administration on easing the restrictions. But the agency said in a statement Friday the deadline has been extended to September because committee members asked for extra time to finish assessing whether it is safe to lift restrictions.
"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 statement said.
The agency is under public and political pressure to ease the restrictions as more people use e-book readers, music and video players, smartphones and laptops. Use of electronic devices is prohibited when aircraft are below 10,000 feet because of concern they could create electromagnetic interference with critical aircraft systems. But evidence of the potential interference is murky.
Cellphone calls and Internet use and transmissions are also prohibited, and it's not expected those restrictions will be lifted. Using cellphones to make calls on planes is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. There is concern that making calls from fast-flying planes might cause technical difficulties with cellphone reception on the ground. There is also the potential annoyance factor — whether passengers will be unhappy if they have to listen to other passengers yakking on the phone.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that a draft report by the advisory committee indicates its 28 members have reached a consensus that at least some of the current restrictions should be eased.
"It's good to see the FAA may be on the verge of acknowledging what the traveling public has suspected for years — that current rules are arbitrary and lack real justification," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of Congress' more outspoken critics of the restrictions, said in a statement. She contends that unless scientific evidence can be presented to justify the restrictions, they should be lifted.
Edward Pizzarello, the co-founder of frequent flier discussion site MilePoint, says lifting the restriction is "long overdue."
"I actually feel like this regulation has been toughest on flight attendants. Nobody wants to shut off their phone, and the flight attendants are always left to be the bad guys and gals," said Pizzarello, 38, of Leesburg, Va.
"I just hope they do the sensible thing and don't allow people to talk on their cellphones during flight," added Pizzarello, who flies 150,000 to 200,000 miles a year. "There are plenty of people that don't have the social skills necessary to make a phone call on a plane without annoying the people around them. Some things are better left alone."
"Before the age of tablets, I used to read a physical newspaper or magazine. Now I can do that on my iPad. If the FAA lets me leave my iPad on,then that's one less thing I have to carry," Pizzarello said.
Airline consultant Robert Mann said the biggest benefit would come on short flights, where passengers would have much more time to use the devices since they are above 10,000 feet for a shorter period of time. That would ultimately give the airlines more time to sell stuff — whether that's Wi-Fi or movies and TV shows on demand.
Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Hudson Crossing, said airlines would only profit if the FAA also amended the rules to allow passengers to access the internet earlier — something that is not being suggested.
"Unless the FAA is considering relaxing the rules on Wi-Fi access, this is not about making money. This is about keeping the passenger entertained," he said.
"It'll be nice not to have to power down and wait, but it never really bothered me. As long as they don't allow calls I'll be happy," said Ian Petchenik, 28, a Chicago-based consultant and frequent flier.
"If they change the rule, it would make my job a whole lot easier," said Heather Poole, a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline, blogger and author of the novel "Cruising Attitude."
Poole said there is a lot of pressure for airlines to have on-time departures. Flight attendants are dealing with an "out-of-control" carry-on bag situation and then have to spend their time enforcing the electronics rule.
"These days, it takes at least five reminders to get people to turn off their electronics, and even then, it doesn't always work," Poole said. "I think some passengers believe they're the only ones using their devices, but it's more like half the airplane doesn't want to turn it off."
Poole said her role as enforcer during boarding sets the tone of the rest of the flight.Comment on this story
"We take off, and everyone is left thinking about how miserable they are for the next four hours," she said.
On a recent flight that had really bad turbulence, a business class passenger wearing noise-canceling headphones missed the captain's announcement to stay seated.
"Takeoff and landing is when passengers need to be most aware of their surroundings in case — God forbid — we have to evacuate," Poole said. "I don't see that guy, or any of the ones like him, reacting very quickly."
Mayerowitz reported from New York.
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