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U.S. to consider relaxing rules on using electronics in flight

By Alwyn Scott

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Airplane passengers would be allowed broader use of mobile devices, laptops and tablets during flights, under a proposal U.S. air safety regulators are due to begin considering next week.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will receive in the next few days advice about allowing greater use of personal electronic devices on aircraft from an advisory committee drawn from government and the aviation and consumer electronics industries, according to people familiar with the matter.

The new rules are likely to increase use of in-flight Internet service provided by companies such as Gogo Inc, and may affect standards for electronic device manufacturers, such as Apple Inc, Samsung Electronics, Google Inc and Amazon.com Inc.

The rules also could make it easier for airlines to allow passengers to plug their own electronics into in-flight entertainment systems, allowing airlines to save the weight of providing screens for everyone.

Current FAA rules require devices be switched off below 10,000 feet and ban cellphone calls at any altitude because of the risk they can interfere with airplane radios and other systems. Passengers often are allowed to make calls after a plane, even while it is on an active taxiways.

Recognizing that many travelers want to use smartphones, tablets, laptops and e-readers during takeoff and landing, the FAA last year set up the advisory group and took public comments on what could be accomplished without compromising safety.

Many passengers have expressed strong concerns that the rules are either a nuisance, or that they are necessary to avert a crash, leading to confusion and stress. Many passengers routinely ignore the rules, leaving devices on purposely or by accident.

The 28-member committee approved the report on Wednesday and is due to submit it to the FAA by Monday, according to people familiar with the matter. The committee did not consider allowing greater use of cell phones.

Instead, the report suggest specific ways that other electronics can be made safer in other phases of flight, by plane makers airlines and others involved in flight safety.

"There's no way they can police the individual devices," "The solution is make sure the aircraft can handle whatever is thrown at it," said one person familiar with the matter.

Cell phone use has surfaced as one of the most divisive issues, but that issue was left out of the FAA's consideration since it is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Delta Air Lines said in a letter to the FAA last year that it found that virtually all of the violations with personal electronic devices on flights occur while planes are taxiing and most involve cell phone use. But the airline said it has seen no corresponding increase in safety problems.

"The benefits of expanded in-flight PED usage outweigh the extreme low risk of an actual interference event occurring, based on the data Delta has assembled," Kirk Thornburg, Delta's managing director of aviation flight safety, said in the letter.

Thornburg, chair of the advisory committee, said Delta recommends allowing passengers to make cell calls while a plane is on the ground, and allowing them to use approved "non-voice, non-sound" throughout a flight. Airlines would still be the ones to decide which devices are approved.

But approval could be complicated, especially with the proliferation of devices and uncertainty about whether they are functioning properly and in what mode.

"Since you can't test all the PEDs out there, and passengers are ignoring the rules, the report details various recommendations, methods and techniques that operators can follow to assure themselves and the FAA that PEDs can be safely used by passengers and flight crew throughout all phases of flight," said a person familiar with the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Pilots would retain authority to order passengers to shut off and stow devices if conditions warrant it, the source added.

The FAA has long wrestled with the issue of electronics on flights, publishing its first rule in 1966, after studies showed FM radios could interfere with navigation systems.

Some airlines hope to launch in-flight entertainment systems that will stream movies and music across passengers' devices. Industry experts say the airlines expect they could reduce the weight of the plane by relying on passenger devices, saving fuel and lowering operating costs.

Doug Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers and a member of the committee, said his group was surprised electronics were more of a concern than seat width and leg room. But he said interference from electronics is real, so the focus is on how to protect against it.

Pilots have told him they heard cell phone noise in their headsets while flying. Even though people were not talking, the phones were still trying to connect to cell towers.

"There is interference out there and it is noticed," he said. "We don't like to see the pilots distracted."

(Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by David Gregorio)

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