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FAA eased its restrictions on the use of in-flight personal electronic devices Thursday. Reuters

Fliers are one giant step closer to using their smartphones, tablets and e-readers for the duration of a flight after the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, announced plans Thursday to expand the use of so-called portable electronic devices during all phases of air travel.

“We believe today’s decision honors both our commitment to safety and consumer’s increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of their flights,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stated. “These guidelines reflect input from passengers, pilots, manufacturers and flight attendants, and I look forward to seeing airlines implement these much anticipated guidelines in the near future.”

FAA based its decision on the results of an exhaustive yearlong review by the 28-member PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee, composed of pilots, flight attendants, airline executives, mechanics, engineers and electronics makers. “I commend the dedication and excellent work of all the experts who spent the past year working together to give us a solid report so we can now move forward with a safety-based decision on when passengers can use PEDs on airplanes,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

Fliers have long chafed under rules that require lightweight portable electronics to be turned off for takeoff and landing, largely because the FAA has failed to convince passengers that they pose a threat. Now, it will be up to each airline to prove to the FAA that its fleet can tolerate the radio interference. The sooner they can prove that tablets, e-readers, smartphones and the like are no threat to safety, the sooner you can use your gadgets.

What You Can Do Now That You Couldn’t Do Before

The new rules mean that anyone using an e-reader book, watching a film on a tablet or listening to music on a smartphone or mp3 player will now be allowed to continue these activities uninterrupted from gate to gate “with very limited exceptions.” These exceptions include placing electronic items, books and magazines in the seatback pocket during the actual takeoff and landing due to their physical hazards, and turning devices off during the landing process in rare instances of low-visibility.

The changes will give travelers anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes of additional time with their favorite devices during the departure phase of the flight, and another 10 to 20 minutes on the descent and landing, making it extremely popular with business travelers and the younger demographic alike, according to Henry H. Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Hudson Crossing, LLC.

What You Still Can’t Do

“You can continue watching the last episode of 'Breaking Bad' if you’ve already downloaded it, or you can finish writing the last chapter of your novel or edit your Power Point presentation,” Harteveldt said. “It’s good for business productivity, but what you will not be able to do is use the Internet. So from the standpoint of the passenger, it’s a partial victory.”

The use of Internet below 10,000 feet is covered by a separate FAA regulation that was not part of the current review. Thus, sending and receiving emails, playing interactive online games or using Wi-Fi are all still prohibited activities, as is making a phone call.

Harteveldt said there was absolutely no desire to change rules on voice calls, which are restricted by the Federal Communications Commission and send out signals strong enough to be received at great distances. Travelers will still be required to switch their cell phones to airplane mode or have the cellular service disabled (i.e., no signal bars displayed), though the use of short-range Bluetooth accessories, like wireless keyboards, is permissible under the changes.

Heavier items like laptops will need to be stowed under seats or in overhead bins during takeoff and landing, just like all other large items that can shift around and pose a safety hazard to other passengers.

How Soon Will The Rules Change?

FAA wants it to be very clear that nothing will change immediately. It has been quick to point out that current rules remain in effect until each airline completes its safety assessment, gets FAA approval and changes its policies.

The federal agency said that differences among fleets and operations would mean the implementation will vary among airlines. Nevertheless, it expects many carriers will be able to prove that their planes allow passengers to safely use devices in airplane mode, gate-to-gate, by the end of the year.

FAA released a tool this week that will help airlines assess the risks of potential device-induced avionics problems for their airplanes and specific operations. The airlines, however, will need some time to revaluate avionics and make necessary changes to stowage rules, passenger announcements and safety videos. They will also need to revise manuals and checklists for crewmember training materials.

Each airline will individually determine how and when it will allow passengers broader use of personal electronics. Industry trade organization Airlines for America assured Thursday that its members would “work with the FAA to ensure expanded customer use of electronic devices is implemented safely and expeditiously.”

Which Airlines Will Be First To Change?

The stage is now set for U.S. airlines to battle to become the first with policies in place to offer gate-to-gate use of handheld devices. According to Harteveldt, it’s a competition that could offer a short-term advantage in the market. “Their travelers would be allowed to use their devices [during takeoff and landing], while others would still have to put them away.”

Delta Air Lines claims it has already tested its entire fleet and was the first to submit a plan to the FAA. "The Delta team is committed to always working to make flying better, and thanks to their efforts our customers are the first to be able to use their devices throughout their entire flight," Joanne Smith, senior vice president of in-flight service at Delta, said in a statement issued Thursday.

JetBlue representatives issued a similar announcement a few hours later. “We intend to be the first commercial airline in the United States to allow gate-to-gate use of personal electronic devices,” said Robin Hayes, JetBlue chief commercial officer. “To support that goal, we began the certification process with the FAA today."

Other U.S. carriers indicated Thursday that they would implement new policies by as early as Thanksgiving and as late as the year’s end, pending FAA approval.

Who You Should Thank For The Policy Change

Several politicians called for an immediate review of FAA’s “outdated” policies on personal electronic devices, but perhaps none were louder than Sen. Claire McCaskill, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. McCaskill, who penned four letters on the matter and issued numerous calls to action, called Thursday’s announcement “great news for the traveling public” and “a win for common sense.”

“I held the FAA’s feet to the fire to move quickly and responsibly and it has now delivered,” McCaskill said. “I expect the airlines, as key partner stakeholders who helped produce the recommendations to relax current restrictions, to move quickly so that Americans flying for the holidays no longer face restrictions that make no sense.”

The committee members responsible for recommending the changes included a lead engineer at The Boeing Company, a vice president at Amazon.com, a vice president at the Consumer Electronics Association, a member of the European Aviation Safety Agency and various representatives from U.S. and international airlines.