A Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel will recommend how the...

A Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel will recommend how the use of personal electronic devices could be expanded during flights. Credit: Handout

Given a choice, some people would rather go without sex than turn off their tablets, e-readers and smartphones. Not all air travelers are that obsessive but, if it can be done safely, they should be allowed to use personal electronic devices during takeoffs and landings.

A Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel recently recommended letting passengers use the gadgets in airplane mode to read, play games, watch movies or listen to music while sitting in planes on the ground or flying below 10,000 feet. The FAA is reviewing that recommendation -- which applies only to material downloaded and stored before boarding -- but hasn't decided yet whether to propose a rule change.

Current policy requires fliers to turn off all electronic devices once a plane's doors are closed and keep them off until its Wi-Fi connection is activated, usually above 10,000 feet. The influential advisory panel said those restrictions should continue only for uses that require a data connection, such as downloading, surfing, texting and emailing.

Rules banning in-flight electronics were put in place six decades ago because portable radios could interfere with pilots' radios. There is concern -- though only anecdotal evidence -- that modern personal devices can disrupt today's aircraft navigation systems and other electronics.

FAA officials re-evaluating the rules should consider this an all-or-nothing proposition. If the personal electronic devices don't disrupt aircraft electronics, then passengers should be allowed to fire them up at all times and for all uses during a flight. If they do disrupt aircraft electronics, then the rules shouldn't be changed.

Allowing expanded use of smartphones or tablets only to access previously downloaded material, as the panel proposed, would create an enforcement nightmare for flight crews. Making sure all devices are turned off during takeoffs and landings is difficult enough. Determining who might be surfing the Web or checking email rather than listening to music or playing a game would be even tougher.

Unfortunately, passengers hot to make and receive in-flight cellphone calls will continue to be out of luck. Those are banned by the Federal Communications Commission, not the FAA, because phones whizzing through the air at hundreds of miles an hour while trying to connect to cell towers strain cellular networks and interfere with transmissions on the ground.

But calls aside, if it's safe, air travelers should be freed to turn on the devices they love.

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