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FAA may review airplane policy for iPads, Kindles and other devices

Currently, passengers must turn off all electronic devices

Currently, passengers must turn off all electronic devices while the aircraft's altitude is below 10,000 feet. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sick of turning off your iPad during takeoffs and landings? That may soon change.

The FAA last week told New York Times tech writer Nick Bilton it will take a "fresh look" at the use of personal electronics such as iPads and Kindles on airplanes, potentially reversing the much-aligned -- and possibly unnecessary -- policy that forces passengers to completely turn off their devices when planes depart or land.

"With the advent of new and evolving electronic technology, and because the airlines have not conducted the testing necessary to approve the use of new devices, the FAA is taking a fresh look at the use of personal electronic devices, other than cellphones, on aircraft," Laura J. Brown, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs for the FAA, told the Times.

The effect of such devices on airplanes was last tested in 2006 by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, before the Apple iPad's 2010 release. The results, however, showed only that there was "insufficient information to support a wholesale change in policies that restrict use of PEDs." 

(Pilots have been using iPads in the cockpit since December - including takeoffs and landings.) 

Still, any potential testing or conclusion is far from definite, and the FAA has said only that it will take steps toward doing such tests.

In statement, the FAA said "safety is always our top priority, and no changes will be made until we are certain they will not impact safety and security," adding that it knows "this is an area of consumer interest, and our goal is to bring together these key stakeholders to help facilitate a discussion as we have in the past."

The Times conducted its own tests last year at EMT Labs, an independent testing facility that screens devices for health and safety purposes. Results showed the Kindle emitted less than 0.00003 volts per meter when in use. A plane, according to FAA standards, must be able to withstand up to 100 volts per meter of interference.

"The power coming off a Kindle is completely minuscule and can't do anything to interfere with a plane," said Jay Gandhi, chief executive of EMT Labs.

Any official tests, however, could quickly add up. Each airline would have to test every version of a device on passenger-free flights on every plane model in its fleet before it can gain approval, she added.

For some airlines, such as Virgin America, the testing simply isn't feasible right now.

"We have definitely looked at taking this on ourselves, but with how the testing process is currently defined, it is not something we could practically undertake in the immediate future," said Abby Lundardini, vice president of corporate communications for Virgin.

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