By Alwyn Scott
NEW YORK (Reuters) – In as little as a few months, airline passengers could play video games, read e-books, watch movies and listen to music while their flights take off or land, ending a long-standing ban on devices being used during those risky phases.
But looser rules under consideration for portable electronic devices (PEDs) are likely to force airlines to make some major changes.
Carriers, for starters, will need to determine if their planes are “PED resistant” and able to tolerate the proposed broader use of electronics. Some smaller and older planes with less robust avionics may not be, calling for different procedures on device use.
Cabin crews will need new announcements, placards and ways to monitor broader use of such devices as Apple Inc iPads or Amazon.com Inc Kindles. Bulky devices such as laptops and DVD players will need to be stowed during takeoff and landing, and perhaps even when planes are taxiing for long periods to avoid blocking people in an evacuation.
Most importantly, on some landings in poor weather, passengers may still be required to shut down devices so they won’t interfere with electronic guidance systems that planes rely on to locate the runway.
The new guidelines, under review by the Federal Aviation Administration, put the onus on airlines to ensure planes are operated safely, according to members of a government-industry committee that recommended policy changes to the agency.
“It’s not about certifying devices to be used on airplanes. It’s about certifying airplanes to enable use of devices,” said Douglas Johnson, a committee member and vice president of technology policy at the Consumer Electronics Association.
Johnson and others said they hoped the FAA would act swiftly on recommendations in the report. Johnson also said he hoped the government shutdown would not slow action on the new guidelines so that they could be in place by yearend.
For now, rules banning use of electronic devices below 10,000 feet remain in effect.
FAA officials did not respond to questions, and email messages said they were unavailable due to the shutdown.
Passengers and electronics makers have long sought to ease restrictions on portable electronics use on flights, and the committee’s effort is likely bring the biggest update in years.
The new guidelines pose some tricky questions for air carriers. For example: How will cabin crews deliver safety announcements when passengers are plugged into their own devices?
” ‘You have to get out of the plane because there’s smoke’ – What if you did not hear that?” said Captain Chuck Cook, a committee member and pilot who is manager of fleet programs and technology at JetBlue Airways.
Airlines also will need to harmonize their announcements and rules to avoid sowing confusion. Otherwise “passengers will start to create their own reality about what’s allowed,” Cook said.
Solutions devised for a large airline with modern jets might not work for a small carrier with propeller planes, he said. Accordingly, the report provides an outline to structure the FAA’s thinking, and “the book is still waiting to be written” by the agency, Cook said.
“There are lots of ways to solve a problem, and we were careful to not say this is how to solve it,” he said.
The guidelines cover technical changes such as how to ensure planes are resistant to electronic interference; changes to ensure they can operate safely with the devices; and changes in the ways attendants instruct passengers about using them appropriately.
Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy at Amazon.com, led the subcommittee on technical standards. He said the report, together with FAA guidance, will help airlines determine if their planes can tolerate greater electronics use.
“Aircraft have improved rather dramatically over the years” to resist electronic interference, Misener said. Today most are “immune to it” since they are designed to fly through radio beams from satellite dishes and broadcast towers.
Airlines will still look at the plane make, model and avionics systems to guarantee they can handle any stray signals from portable devices.
In some landings where visibility is low and guidance instruments are turned on, the portable devices may still need to be turned off to be cautious, but that would be in fewer than 1 percent of flights, said Misener, who is also an electrical engineer.
The FAA is expected to take at least several weeks to review the recommendations. With the government shutdown, it may take until yearend. Afterwards, airlines will need time to develop announcements, update manuals, train crews and inspect planes.
“You just can’t turn that on in a day,” said Cook.