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FAA panel backs easing electronic device restrictions on planes

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A Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee recommended Thursday that airline passengers be allowed to use smartphones, tablets, e-readers and other personal electronic devices during takeoffs and landings. Now it goes to the FAA for consideration. (iStock)

After an advisory panel recommended to ease restrictions on some in-flight electronic devices, the Federal Aviation Administration will take up the issue next week of airline passengers' use of smartphones, tablets, e-readers and other personal electronic devices during takeoffs and landings.

"You will be able to read or work on what's stored on the device. You want to edit that PowerPoint? Great. You want to watch 'Breaking Bad' and you have it downloaded to your smartphone or your tablet, you can continue to do that."

- Henry Harteveldt, airline and travel industry analyst, Hudson Crossing

A 28-member advisory committee agreed on the recommendation during a closed-door meeting Thursday, industry officials familiar with the deliberations said. The recommendation will be included in a report to be delivered to the FAA on Monday, they said.

Under the advisory committee's recommendation, passengers would have greater opportunity to use most devices below 10,000 feet altitude, although some devices would have to be switched to airplane mode. Downloading data, surfing the Web and talking on the phone still would be prohibited.

"You will not be able to play 'Words With Friends,' you will not be able to shop, you will not be able to surf websites or send email," said Henry Harteveldt, an airline and travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing.

"You will be able to read or work on what's stored on the device," he said. "You want to edit that PowerPoint? Great. You want to watch 'Breaking Bad' and you have it downloaded to your smartphone or your tablet, you can continue to do that."

The officials asked not to be named because the FAA has urged committee members not to talk to the media or to publicly discuss the recommendations.

Passengers are required to turn off phones and other electronic devices while planes are under 10,000 feet in altitude to prevent interference with sensitive cockpit equipment. Takeoffs and landings are the most critical phases of flight. But new planes are equipped to prevent electronic interference, and critics have long complained the safety concerns behind the regulations are groundless.

"We've been fighting for our customers on this issue for years -- testing an airplane packed full of Kindles, working with the FAA, and serving as the device manufacturer on this committee," Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said in a statement. "This is a big win for customers and, frankly, it's about time."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a prominent critic of the current restrictions, said Thursday that if the FAA doesn't "act swiftly" to implement the recommendations, she'll introduce legislation to force its hand.

"I will know it if I see that they're stalling," she said in an interview.

Not everyone agrees. There have been many reports from pilots over the years of electronic interference that appeared to have been caused by passenger use of devices. Technical panels that have looked into the issue in the past concluded evidence that the devices were safe wasn't sufficient to merit lifting restrictions.

But Delta Airlines said in a letter to the FAA last year that out of 2.3 million flights over two years, the airline received 27 reports from pilots and maintenance crews of possible device interference. None of the reports could be confirmed, the letter said.

It's up to FAA officials whether to follow the committee's recommendations. The agency created the committee, put several of its employees on the panel and was closely involved in the deliberations, so it's expected that all or most of the recommendations will be implemented. How long that will take is still unclear.

Airline passengers could see restrictions lifted as soon as early 2014 if the agency chooses a faster implementation track. The process could drag on a year or more if airlines have to apply carrier by carrier to have their planes approved, industry officials said.