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Panel urges FAA to ease ban on air passengers’ digital devices

NEW YORK – Airline passengers should be allowed to use their personal electronic devices to read, play games or enjoy movies and music, even when planes are on the ground or flying below 10,000 feet, according to recommendations an advisory panel sent to the Federal Aviation Administration on Monday.

But the panel said that restrictions should remain on sending text messages, browsing the Web or checking email after the plane’s doors have been closed. Passengers can do that only when the aircraft’s Wi-Fi network is turned on, typically above 10,000 feet. The use of cellphones to make voice calls, which was not part of the review, will still be prohibited throughout the flight.

The review was the work of a 28-member panel set up last year to revise current policies.

It provides a road map to changing the policy, but it is now up to the FAA’s administrator, Michael P. Huerta, to decide whether and when to do so.

The panel would maintain restrictions on devices like smartphones and tablets with data communication features that could potentially disrupt some airplane systems. For that reason, those devices should be used only on “airplane mode,” which disables their transmission capability.

This would leave passengers, broadly, the use of tablets, e-readers, and smartphones to use any material - books, music, or movies - that has been downloaded and stored digitally before the flight.

The FAA started its review of current policies over a year ago and appointed the panel to look at the technical aspects of the ban and outline steps to ease restrictions. Policy changes have been long expected by passengers, increasingly frustrated by rules seen as outdated in a tech-driven world.

The FAA recognized the necessity for change, given the proliferation of electronic devices in recent years, particularly smartphones and tablets. The policy is increasingly difficult to enforce. One study suggested that about a third of all passengers did not turn off their devices once on a plane.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has pressed the FAA to relax the ban, said she was pleased with the panel’s recommendations and hoped that the FAA would adopt them quickly.

“Anytime you have a rule that appears to be about safety but it is widely ignored, it undermines the importance of other rules about safety,” she said. “If people are being told to do things because it keeps the public safe, there needs to be solid scientific data that supports that, and clearly that was not the case with this prohibition.”

Airlines, too, have been eager to relax the rules, which are seen often as a distraction for flight attendants forced to police the cabin. They are also expanding the use of wireless systems on board, offering live television and considering streaming movies to passengers’ own devices.

But given the persistent uncertainty, as well as the potential risk, the FAA has taken a more cautious approach.

In recent years, pilots have reported hundreds of episodes in which they suspected that electronic devices might have interfered with instruments on the flight deck. But the evidence has been largely anecdotal, and neither regulators nor airlines have been able to formally substantiate them.

The effort to regulate electronics on planes began in the late 1950s, when studies found that portable FM radios carried by some passengers interfered with the radar navigation systems used at the time.

The panel recommended that the FAA require airlines to demonstrate that their planes were immune to electromagnetic interference.

Many have done so already when installing Wi-Fi. Once that is done, the agency can allow the airlines to lift the restrictions. That could happen next year.