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Disruptions: FAA May Loosen Curbs on Fliers' Use of Electronics

Allen Donikowski | Flickr | Getty Images

If you're sitting on a plane at the gate and reading this column on an electronic gadget, you're about to hear eight dreaded words: "Please power down your electronic devices for takeoff." But this time next year, you might hear something very different: "Please put your devices on 'airplane mode' for takeoff."

According to people who work with an industry working group that the Federal Aviation Administration set up last year to study the use of portable electronics on planes, the agency hopes to announce by the end of this year that it will relax the rules for reading devices during takeoff and landing. The change would not include cellphones. (Read more: Mobile-Device Use During the Whole Flight?)

One member of the group and an official of the F.A.A., both of whom asked for anonymity because they were not allowed to speak publicly about internal discussions, said the agency was under tremendous pressure to let people use reading devices on planes, or to provide solid scientific evidence why they cannot.

As I wrote in 2011, travelers are told to turn off their iPads and Kindles for takeoff and landing, yet there is no proof that these devices affect a plane's avionics. To add to the confusion, the F.A.A. permits passengers to use electric razors and audio recorders during all phases of flight, even though those give off more electronic emissions than reading tablets.

The F.A.A. declined to comment.

Last year, the agency announced that an industry working group would study the issue. The group, which first met in January, comprises people from various industries, including Amazon, the Consumer Electronics Association, Boeing, the Association of Flight Attendants, the Federal Communications Commission and aircraft makers. The group plans to introduce its findings by July 31.

The group has several goals beyond determining the safety of electronics on planes, according to an internal document that describes its objectives that was shown to The New York Times. Those include ensuring that flight attendants do not have to be the social police for which devices are acceptable during flight and determining what the term "airplane mode" really means. Finally, the group wants to ensure that whatever rules the agency announces apply to devices that are not on the market today.

The report also hopes to replace multiple regulations with a single, concise set.

To guarantee that the F.A.A. follows through with its promise to relax the rules, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said she planned to hold the agency accountable by introducing legislation.

In a phone interview, Ms. McCaskill said she had grown frustrated with the F.A.A.'s stance on devices after she learned that the agency now allows iPads as flight manuals in the cockpit and has subsequently given out devices to some flight attendants with information on flight procedures. (Read more: Why Flight Attendants Will Stalk You With Tablets)

"So it's O.K. to have iPads in the cockpit; it's O.K. for flight attendants — and they are not in a panic — yet it's not O.K. for the traveling public," she said. "A flying copy of 'War and Peace' is more dangerous than a Kindle."

In recent months, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the F.C.C., sent a letter to the F.A.A. urging it to allow more electronics on planes. Airline pilots unions, travel coalitions and travel agencies have also asked the agency to change the rules. There have also been more episodes of unruly passengers who have been arrested or removed from planes for refusing to turn off their cellphones or iPads. (Read more: In the Air, Minor Tiffs Can Escalate Fast)

Ms. McCaskill met this month with Mr. Genachowski, who said on Friday that he will leave the commission soon, to discuss the rule. After the meeting, she said, "The idea that in-flight use of electronic devices for things like reading a book poses a threat to the safety of airline passengers is baseless and outdated."

The issue is only increasing in importance as more Americans board flights with wearable computers. People are flying with electronics like the Nike FuelBand, Jawbone Up and FitBit, all of which track your daily activity. But before long, there will be passengers with Google glasses and an Apple iWatch.

Can you imagine pilots mandating that people shut down their glasses before takeoff?

"We're going to start drafting legislation that would dictate these changes," said Ms. McCaskill, adding that the F.A.A. was moving too slowly. She said she was meeting with various parties and corralling bipartisan support for action in Congress. "Let's hope it's not necessary, but I will be looking for vehicles to get this changed."

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