E-devices on planes: Expect bumpy takeoff

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Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 12:00 am

The confusion light is on.

That's one unintended result of new policies announced last week by the Federal Aviation Administration allowing wider use of personal electronic devices on airplanes. From initial reactions I'm hearing to the widely welcomed changes, we're going to see a period of adjustment and uncertainty, since not all airlines will embrace the changes right away.

And, of course, it will be up to flight attendants to explain it all for you.

On Thursday, the FAA announced that passengers would be able to use portable electronic devices like tablets, e-readers, MP3 players and smartphones during all stages of flight, provided they remain in “airplane mode” — that is, with cellular transmission functions off. The previous policy required that these things be turned completely off while planes were below 10,000 feet during takeoff and landing.

Here's one aspect of the confusion: “Due to differences among fleets and operations, the implementation will vary among airlines,” the agency said. But not to worry. The agency said it was “immediately providing the airlines with implementation guidance.”

Confused? Heck, just ask your flight attendant, because flight crew members should be “trained to recognize and respond to potential PED interference,” the agency said, referring to portable electronic devices.

Most major travel organizations responded enthusiastically to the policy change. The Global Business Travel Association, for example, said “business travelers applaud the recommendations.” But some are resisting the high-fives, said Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “We are holding our applause,” he said.

One reason is that the FAA, rather than setting a uniform policy for all domestic airlines, instead requires each carrier to obtain specific safety certification for each model of airplane in its fleet. This might result in “patchwork policies regarding the use of electronic devices, depending on the type of aircraft you're on, depending on the airline that you're on,” Koch said.

The FAA said that “each airline will determine how and when they will allow passengers broader use of PEDs.” Changes “will not happen immediately, and will vary by airline,” the FAA added, advising passengers to “check with your airline to see if and when you can use your PED.”

Flight attendants know that “check with your airline” will mostly mean “ask the flight attendant as she or he comes down the aisle.” The FAA also said each airline would need to revise manuals, checklists, training materials, carry-on baggage stowage procedures and passenger announcements about the new policies. Right: flight attendants again.

At least in the initial phase, passengers will probably encounter conflicting rules and instructions, as some airlines have FAA approval and some don't. Confusion will most likely be worsened by the fact that on many flights, you can start your trip on an airline that has one policy and fly a connection on another airline that might have a different policy.

“Every airline has code-share partners,” said John Walton, director of data for Routehappy.com, a website that provides information about routes and amenities on planes. “Say you're on a Delta ticket and you're flying on some Delta Connection carrier, or your connection is on Alaska Airlines — all with different policies. This could be a bit tricky.”

The safety concerns over electronic devices are obviously complicated. The FAA had a panel of experts spend much of the year studying the issues before concluding that most commercial airplanes can tolerate radio interference from standard electronic devices. Still, given the range of airplane models, the agency decided that airlines themselves need to complete safety assessments of each type of airplane before approval.

So airlines are now scrambling to get fleets certified.

Standardization and consistency will be welcome, once they arrive. Right now, few passengers understand the new policies. Some older phones don't even have an airplane mode, for example. Laptops, for another example, don't meet the definition of portable electronic device and will need to remain safely stowed during takeoff and landing phases. And a few aircraft-type navigational systems are susceptible to interference during low visibility, so “you may be asked to turn off your device” on those flights, the FAA said.

“I have sympathy for the flight attendants, because they already have to be electronic-device cops,” Koch said. “Now they're going to have to make all these extra announcements about what you can or can't do.”

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