Here’s what to expect (and when) from new FAA electronics rules

Bekah Wright

Call it a gift from the Federal Aviation Administration: This holiday season, U.S. airline passengers should be able to keep their electronics turned on during takeoff and landing. A new personal electronic devices (PEDs) policy allowing passengers to use tablets, games and smartphones during all phases of flights could be in effect for some airlines as soon as this weekend.

The former policy required passengers to turn off most devices during takeoffs and landings over concern that interference from their signals could affect airplane equipment. But soon, you’ll be able to keep them on, gate to gate, in airplane mode.

Changes coming soon

When it announced pending changes last month, the FAA estimated that they wouldn’t take effect until early next year, since each airline had to test its fleet for electronic-signal tolerance and come up with a plan for implementing the new policies.

But several air carriers — members of the Aviation Rulemaking Committee that approved the change — got a jump on the competition and submitted their plans as soon as the new rules were announced. JetBlue Airways was one of them. “JetBlue will allow the use of PEDs as quickly as we receive approval from the FAA, which can be as early as this afternoon,” spokesperson Tamara Young said in an interview with Yahoo Travel shortly after the FAA's announcement.

Delta Air Lines hopes to be right on JetBlue’s heels, having submitted its request for approval while Thursday’s press conference was underway. “We stand ready with our fleet of aircraft for FAA approval as early as tomorrow,” Paul Skrbec, a Delta spokesperson, told Yahoo Travel.

Getting the green light involves clearance from the FAA, which worked with a cross-industry panel of experts on the rule-making committee to recommend a certification path that will maintain airline safety. FAA spokesperson Kristie Greco told Yahoo Travel, “We wanted to include all voices in this review, so the ARC was composed of passenger-rights groups, electronics manufacturers, airlines, flight attendants and pilots.” Also on the committee were representatives from the technology industry, including Garmin and Amazon.

This is good news for passengers like actor Alec Baldwin, who was kicked off a flight in December 2011 for refusing to turn off his phone while his plane was at the gate. At the time, Baldwin took to Twitter to complain: “Flight attendant on American reamed me out 4 playing Words With Friends while we sat at the gate, not moving.” According to Marketwatch, he later described the airline as a place “where retired Catholic school gym teachers from the 1950s find jobs as flight attendants.”

There are caveats to today’s protocol change: Devices must stay in airplane mode, and voice calls cannot be made on cell phones while planes are in the air because Federal Communications Commission regulations prohibit any airborne calls using cell phones. You might still have to turn electronics off entirely under certain circumstances such as emergency landings or low visibility. The agency’s website includes detailed guidelines for passengers.

One airline at a time

When will all airlines be onboard with the new policy? According to the FAA’s website, “The process will vary among airlines, but the agency expects airlines to allow passengers to safely use their devices in airplane mode, gate-to-gate, by the end of 2013.”

FAA spokeswoman Greco added, “The FAA has already received plans from some airlines to expand the use of portable electronic devices on planes. The agency is reviewing the plans to make sure they conform to the guidance we released a few hours ago. Depending on the condition of the plan, we could approve expanded use of electronic devices very soon.”

Most airlines have issued statements giving their passengers a heads-up. United Airlines’ says, “We already started work to implement this as safely and quickly as possible, and are excited to offer this new benefit because our customers tell us they want to use their portable electronic devices.”

According to a press release, American Airlines planned to submit its details to the FAA on Friday. “American has been working with the FAA for some time on this initiative and we are excited to bring this improved level of service to our customers. American is working closely with our regional partners to bring the same level of portable device access to regional customers by the end of the year.”

Airlines that weren’t part of the ARC are hoping to submit their plans to the FAA in short order. “We plan to offer our customers the added convenience of using electronic devices onboard. The when part is the trickier answer,” Brandy King, a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, told Yahoo Travel. “Today is the first day we’ve had exposure to the change and seen what work needs to been done in order to submit to the FAA for approval. It will take us time to get that together.”

Alaska Airlines is also looking to submit as soon as possible. Spokesman Paul McElroy told Yahoo Travel that the airline has a list of things to accomplish: “Just a few changes that need to take place include updating pilot and flight attendant manuals, seatback emergency cards, information about PEDs at the back of our in-flight magazine, PA announcements and safety briefings our flight attendants make.” Some things he says will come into consideration: “which devices must be stowed during takeoff and landing, and which smaller ones can be held or put in seatback pocket.”

Once airlines get these issues ironed out, the FAA has to approve all policies and procedures. “We’re working on it as fast as we can,” McElroy said. “We can’t wait to allow our passengers more flexibility in their use of PEDs.”

Alec Baldwin, you will soon be free to play Words With Friends without interruption.