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Mobile device use in the air not taking off

The percentage of airline passengers using smartphones, laptops and other personal electronics has barely budged despite a new rule that allows them to stay powered up from takeoff to the time a flight touches down, according to a new report being released Wednesday.

The study, by DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, found 35.9% of airline passengers were using mobile technology at a given point during the four-month study.

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That was only slightly more than the 35.3% of fliers who were tapping into their mobile devices at observed pointsin 2013, during a period before the Federal Aviation Administration began allowing passengers to use electronic devices to play games, listen to music or read from takeoff to landing. That new rule went into effect on Oct. 31, 2013.

Passengers still are not allowed to text or make cellphone calls, though the Federal Communications Commission recently concluded a public comment period on whether to lift the 1991 ban on in-flight cellular service.

Those prohibitions, the report's authors say, may be making many fliers say why bother.

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"Fliers often have the devices on their lap only to be told they cannot connect with work or friends,'' says Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute. "That's frustrating.''

Additionally, some airline passengers may be reluctant to give up their airborne, tech-free, respites. "Flights are one of the last bastions (where) reading material is the norm,'' Schwieterman says. "People also use the time to sleep and chill out,'' and some enjoy being in the travel bubble.''

That's the case with Jerry Boomer, one of USA TODAY'S panel of Road Warriors, who says that he sometimes use his Kindle e-reader but hasn't increased his use of mobile electronics in flight since the rule change.

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"I'm president of an online school,'' says Boomer, who lives in St. Charles, Mo. "So my life is consumed with technology one way or another and it's nice to get somewhere where I can't be reached and where I can have a little bit of down time and read a book.''

The report found that airlines had a smaller segment of tech users than other modes of transportation, such as inter-city buses, Amtrak and commuter trains.

The use of mobile technology showed its biggest leap on discount buses that ferry passengers from city to city, rising from 46.4% of riders who tapped into their devices at a given time last year, to 59.4% in 2014. Those coaches, like Megabus, have made power outlets at every seat and free WiFi ubiquitous perks that they use, along with low fares, to entice travelers.

"Intercity buses have a trifecta of amenities,'' Schwieterman says, noting that cellphone signals along the bus routes are also strong.

Megabus says that it has seen an uptick in business trekkers traveling fewer than 500 miles who say they are attracted by the ability to continue working throughout the ride.

"Modern travelers are wanting to stretch their hard-earned dollars but not at the sacrifice of comfort and connectivity,'' says Mike Alvich, spokesman for Coach USA/megabus.com.

Amtrak, where 52.2% of passengers were using mobile technology at a given point according to the study, offers similar advantages to inter-city buses. Amtrak officials say that roughly 85% of their passengers have access to free WiFi. Every seat in the busy Northeast corridor has power outlets, as do most of the first and business class seats and sleepers operating throughout the rest of the train network.

But Internet connections and speed can be spotty, and Amtrak is currently looking for solutions to help improve that service.

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"The No. 1 advantage that rail has over the airlines is simply that you can use any device you want to bring with you at any time,'' says Matt Hardison, Amtrak's chief marketing and sales officer. "And of course the fact that we have conventional outlets on all of our trains is a big help for those who want to continue to work or use their devices for other purposes while en route."

Though lagging behind some other forms of transportation, the use of personal electronic devices on airlines has more than doubled in the last four years, according to the Chaddick study. And tablets, like the IPad, are particularly popular, with 12.7% of passengers observed using such devices at a given point this year, as compared with 10.7% in 2013.

The report's researchers observed 7,034 passengers, during 108 weekday departures from Feb. 15 to June 15.

-- Charisse Jones of USA Today

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