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New FAA rules may create digital divide on flights

Izabela Habur | E+ | Getty Images

With the Federal Aviation Administration now considering allowing fliers to use select devices throughout all phases of flight, the debate over whether personal electronics, or PEDs, interfere with airplane navigation systems seems to have quieted down a bit.

Instead, the most vociferous discussions are likely to move to the cabin, where some passengers will probably be allowed to use their devices, some won't and flight attendants will find themselves forced to explain and enforce the resulting digital divide.

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"It's going to become more challenging to determine whose device is OK and whose isn't," said Kelly Skyles, a 26-year flight attendant and national safety and security coordinator for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union that represents cabin crews at American Airlines. "My greatest concern is that it's going to put flight attendants at risk for more confrontations."

Consider that under the FAA advisory committee's recommendations, passengers will be allowed to use e-books, tablets and other devices to access preloaded content during takeoff, landing and below 10,000 feet.

They will not, however, be able to get e-mail, surf the web or engage in other activities that require an Internet connection. Regardless of the FAA's decision, the use of cell phones, which are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, will continue to be prohibited.

(Read more: Inflight Wi-Fi sometimes more vital than legroom)

For flight crews, enforcement will be further complicated as the number of devices proliferate and the lines between phones, tablets (phablets, anyone?) and other PEDs continue to blur.

"You're sitting there with your Kindle; I'm sitting there with my iPhone, but wait, we're both reading books," said Skyles. "Mine's supposed to be turned off and put away but yours isn't?"

Given the crowded and often tense atmosphere that defines flying these days, that "double standard" is bound to cause friction among the "cans" and "cannots." It may also cause delays if cabin crews have to spend more time explaining the rules about disabling Wi-Fi, ensuring passengers put their cell phones in airplane mode and repeatedly telling the Alec Baldwins of the world that, yes, they really do have to stop playing Word with Friends.

(Read more: Verizon, AT&T top US airport connectivity survey)

"You can't be looking at everybody all the time," said Tiffany Hawk, a former flight attendant and the author of "Love Me Anyway," a novel about airline culture. "People are always pretending to turn things off even when they're not."

Others simply leave their devices on by accident. According to a study conducted in May, up to 30 percent of passengers said they'd accidentally left a PED on during a flight. That number is likely to climb as more people see their fellow fliers reading e-books, watching movies and listening to music from the moment they sit down to the time they deplane.

None of which will happen overnight. While the FAA is expected to begin considering its advisory committee's recommendations this week, the rules won't be changed until next year at the earliest. In the meantime, the debates will continue as to the risks PEDs may or may not pose for airplane navigation systems, how any rule changes will be enforced and why it is that being able to have our devices on for a few extra minutes is such a big deal in the first place.

(Read more: Got a long layover? Keep your pajamas handy)

"All we're talking about is 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of a flight and 10 to 15 minutes at the end," said Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers and a member of the FAA's advisory committee. "It's hard for me to imagine that those few minutes are that important.

"For myself and our organization, we'd much rather have more legroom and wider seats."

—By NBC Contributor Rob Lovitt. Follow him on Twitter.

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