Travelers may soon be spared the inopportune phrase, "Please turn off all electronic devices."
The Federal Aviation Administration could decide as soon as this week to relax the ban on some personal electronic devices at low altitudes.
New guidelines may allow reading e-books such as Kindles, listening to podcasts and watching videos. But some activities needing Wi-Fi, as well as making cellphone calls, are expected to remain off-limits.
The existing rules, which have remained essentially the same since the 1960s, are being changed to reflect changing technology. Previously, the FAA decided that all devices were to be turned off at altitudes below 10,000 feet.
According to an FAA statement, "The consumer electronics industry has exploded," and its stance of giving airlines leeway to evaluate the safety of specific devices "has become untenable."
Jim Vandy of South Bend, Ind., who was at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Monday after visiting relatives in the Twin Cities, said he's fine if the new rules are relaxed as long as it doesn't compromise safety.
He draws the line at allowing cellphones. "The idea of listening to some guy talking on his cellphone for a two-hour flight would be a deal breaker for me," Vandy said. "IPad yes, cellphone no."
The changes likely will go into effect next year after the panel recommends the new rules, although the FAA said in a statement that "No changes will be made until we are certain that they will not impact safety and security."
Last year, the FAA's advisory panel met to update the rule but asked for an extension to check technical details.
The partial lifting of the ban is not a big surprise, said George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com.
Although airline pilots have reported anecdotal evidence of electronic devices causing cockpit instrument problems, definitive findings have been lacking.
Delta Air Lines found that pilots and mechanics mentioned electronic devices as a possible source of interference 21 times in more than 2 million flights, according to its flight and maintenance records from January 2010 and October 2012.
For years, many people have not been shutting off devices — either deliberately or accidentally ignoring the rules.
"Very few people are fully complying with the existing regulations," Hobica said.
Aviation experts believe that the most popular electronic devices use too little power to interfere with the plane's cockpit controls. But for some safety advocates and airline attendants, the issue with laptops and tablets is their ability to turn into lethal projectiles in the event of turbulence.
Relaxing the rules may result in unintended consequences, according to some experts. "It was a lot simpler for attendants to be able to say 'Shut everything off.' This may make their jobs harder," Hobica said.
Kim Phillips of Waite Park, Minn., is one traveler who would like to see the cellphone ban lifted. She wants to be able to have that last-minute conversation with her family while her plane is taking off or landing.
"As a mom, I always want to be able to say those last-minute goodbyes and make sure the plane took off safely," Phillips said.
Local airline expert Terry Trippler of theplanerules.com said he favors relaxing the ban on some forms of personal electronics because it keeps passengers occupied. He said he's seen a few scenes similar to the kerfuffle that actor Alec Baldwin caused while refusing to quit playing Words with Friends on an American Airlines flight.
He thinks it's the right decision not to allow cellphones in flight, at least not yet. "Otherwise, I think we'll be seeing fistfights in the cabin," he said.
Frequent flier Geoff Eldridge of Minneapolis said that he's glued to his phone until asked to shut it down, but that he doesn't mind that cellphones are still restricted from use in the air.
"I do as much work as I can for as long as I can," he said, "but it's nice to be able to get a two- or three-hour break."