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Rules for electronics during air travel are eased

Updated: 2013-11-01T03:25:27Z

By ERIC ADLER

The Kansas City Star

Neil Youmans concedes that the new passenger rules issued Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration — which, hey, still don’t allow phone calls, but do permit gate-to-gate use of almost all other personal electronics — were made for a guy like him.

Not because the 38-year-old Kansas Citian is some kind of hurried business type who hated shutting off his laptop before take-off.

Nor does he resent having to power-down the movie or music on his iPad.

Youman’s reason: He always thought the rule was — how did he put it? — “silly.”

“I never turned my phone off in the first place,” he said, waiting Thursday for a flight to San Diego in Terminal C at Kansas City International Airport. “I just keep it on in my pocket.”

Flight attendants, of course, have been frustrated by this for years.

“No one listens,” said Heidi Hill, one of three Denver-based Frontier Airline flight attendants who stopped to discuss the new rules before working a flight out of KCI.

Attendant Rammasska Ellis even offered an estimate on how many passengers ever actually comply when she and her crew ask them turn off all electronics.

“Let’s say we have a full flight?” she said. “Sixty percent probably really turn them off. Forty percent are sneaky and act like they’ve turned them off. Fifty percent don’t even put them away!”

Attendant June Hawks said that, typically, as soon as attendants take their seats before a plane’s wheels are up, the screens on cellphones, tablets and laptops light up throughout the plane. They don’t go off as they should when planes land.

“You can see the glow,” Hawks said.

Like many passengers, the attendants applauded the aviation agency’s new looser rules, announced by FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta at a Washington news conference.

The new rules come after nearly a year of study that began in January by the FAA’s Portable Electronic Devices Aviation Rulemaking Committee. It looked into the safety of allowing greater widespread use of personal electronic devices, or PEDs, in today’s aircraft.

Its Sept.30 report concluded that most of today’s commercial airlines could indeed tolerate radio interference signals from devices such as electronic tablets, e-readers and smartphones.

Once airlines verify that their fleets are PED tolerant, the report ruled, they could let passengers use hand-held lightweight devices at all altitudes.

The rule change is pending safety reviews by individual airlines. The switch will likely go into effect at the end of this year or the beginning of the next, allowing passengers to use electronic devices to listen to music or read or play games in “all phases of flight.”

The devices will have to be in “airplane mode” with their cell network connections turned off.

“This is great news for the traveling public and, frankly, a win for common sense,” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said in a statement.

McCaskill chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, part of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that holds jurisdiction over aviation and communications policy. McCaskill has long been pushing for reforms in the FAA rules on personal devices.

Certain prohibitions will remain.

Although smartphones can be used on “airplane mode,” making calls on those phones will still not be allowed. Those rules are set by the Federal Communications Commission, not the FAA. Nor will passengers be allowed to check email or browse the Web after the doors of the plane have been shut until the aircraft’s Wi-Fi has been turned on. That usually happens above 10,000 feet.

Large electronic devices such as laptops will still have to be stored prior to take-off and landing.

Only in rare cases, though, is it likely that the range of electronic devices need to be turned off.

“In some instances of low visibility, 1 percent of flights,” Huerta said at the conference, “some landing systems may not be able to tolerate the interference. In those cases, passengers may be asked to turn off personal electronic devices.”

Members of the rule-making committee included representatives from both inside and outside the aviation industry, including one from Olathe-headquartered Garmin. Both the Association of Flight Attendants and Airlines for America, the airline industry’s prime trade group, supported its findings.

Danae Valdivia, 14, and her brother, Juan, 15, of Pittsburg, Kan., admitted that they’re among those for whom the rules will have little effect when it comes to their iPods and iPads or phones.

“I never turn it off,” said Danae, waiting with her mother and brother for a flight out of KCI to Dallas and then Mexico.

Kathleen Wisneski, 69, of Lansing, Kan., was on her way to Oklahoma on a midday American Airlines flights. She sat in the terminal with her Samsung tablet absorbed in a novel, “A Southern Place,” which she planned on reading on the flight.

Turning it or any other electronic device off, she said, would hardly be a bother.

“It’s just always been that way,” Wisneski said. “I guess for business people who fly all the time, it might be a big deal for them. I always get a kick out of them when they say, ‘Turn off your cellphones’ and they don’t. What’s with that?”

Jay Simmons, 62, a college professor who lives outside Columbia, and had just arrived back from Dallas, agreed.

Yes, she said, having to close her laptop and stop her work on the flight is always a bit of a bother and an interruption. So she is glad for the new rule changes. But had the rules not been changed, Simmons said, she would hardly have found it onerous to trade a brief pause in her work for the safety of an entire flight.

“I do whatever they say to do,” Simmons said. “How selfish can you be when you look at it from the standpoint of the security of the plane?”

Down the corridor, Arizona businessmen Jon Chernicky, 55, and his colleague Dale Larson, 59, both in agribusiness, said that although they always listened to the rules of the airlines in the past about turning off their electronics, they always felt the existing rules were spurious and outdated.

“I knew it was a bunch of bull, but I complied,” said Larson, who said his brother is an airline pilot who had long ago put him at ease about the effect of personal electronics on airlines.

“It would be nice to be able to work,” said Chernicky, who travels internationally. “Most other countries have that right now.”

The European Aviation Safety Agency has no rules banning the use of cellphones or other electronic devices and, instead, leaves those policies up to individual airlines.

Before her flight to Cheyenne, Wyo., to see her adult daughter, Adrean Weaver, 49, sat at KCI also tapping away at her laptop. To her, she said, the rules were meaningless.

“They don’t affect me,” she said. No matter what flight she’s on, her habits are the same. For her, a plane ride is a time for quiet.

“I usually end up falling asleep.”

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to eadler@kcstar.com.

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