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U.S. considers expanding tablet, e-reader use on flights

By Alwyn Scott

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. aviation regulators began considering on Monday how to let airplane passengers make greater use of laptops, tablets and e-readers on board, while still ensuring the devices don't compromise flight safety.

The suggestions, contained in a long-awaited report, are a hot-button issue for passengers, many of whom have chafed under strict rules that require portable electronic devices be turned off for takeoff and landing.

Some passengers fear their devices will imperil a flight by disrupting navigation or radio signals. Others consider the risks remote and leave devices on during those critical phases of flight when planes are most prone to accidents.

The report by an industry-government committee recommends allowing tablets and e-readers to remain on at altitudes below 10,000 feet on newer planes that are designed to resist electronic interference, but says larger devices such as laptops or DVD players should still be stowed for takeoff and landing so they don't pose a physical hazard, according to people familiar with the matter.

There are no recommendations to alter the devices themselves; however, older aircraft may need further checks to ensure they won't be affected by interference, these people said. Personal cell phone calls weren't considered by the committee, and would still be banned during flights.

The recommendations arose amid intense interest from the public and some members of Congress, prompting the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration last year to set up a committee to recommend how the rules should change.

The committee began work in January aiming to conclude in six months. In July it got a two-month extension to come up with guidance on how airlines can assess the safety risks posed to critical flight systems and develop a policy on stowing devices that would work with expanded use of the devices.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta "will review the report and determine next steps," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said Monday.

OLD PLANES, NEW DEVICES

Restrictions on portable electronics on flights have simmered for decades. The FAA first set rules in 1966 to govern in-flight use of FM radios, the hot new technology of the day, after studies showed they interfered with navigation.

Many of the older aircraft remain in use and "are as susceptible today as they were 45 years ago," the FAA said.

The switch to electrical aircraft steering mechanisms from older systems of pulleys, cables and hydraulics posed further risk to the plane, since those critical flight controls, known as "fly-by-wire" systems, added to the components that could be affected by electrical interference.

Current commercial airplanes models, made by Boeing Co, Airbus, Embraer SA and Bombardier Inc, are designed to resist interference from portable electronic devices.

But some older fly-by-wire planes don't have such protection, the FAA said. And even the more recently made aircraft carry delicate navigation and radio equipment that can be influenced by "spurious radio frequency emissions" from portable electronics.

Meanwhile, portable electronics have been revolutionized. Many emit cellular, Bluetooth and internet signals and even those that don't can put out low-power signals that move on radio frequencies, the FAA said. E-readers, for example, can emit a signal when the user turns a page, the FAA said. A damaged device can transmit an even more powerful signal.

So far, the FAA has banned use of portable devices in flight unless airlines have determined they don't pose a hazard. Accordingly, the committee suggested standards airlines can follow to determine if older planes can withstand interference, much as airlines do with inflight WiFi and entertainment systems, one of the sources said.

Private jets follow the same FAA guidelines and restrictions as commercial planes when using portable electronic devices, according to Netjets, a corporate jet leasing company.

Some electronic device makers have taken their own steps to prove their devices are safe. In 2011, Amazon.com tested devices by putting lots of them on a plane and seeing if they interfered with the plane's systems. They didn't, and Amazon submitted that report to the FAA, the company said.

Amazon, which sells both the Kindle Fire tablet and variety of Kindle e-readers, was the only device maker to have a direct seat on the 28-member committee, though the Consumer Electronics Association also was a member.

Drew Herdener, a spokesman for the Seattle-based company, said in a statement that the endorsement of broader use of electronics in flight is "a big win for customers."

"Frankly," he added, "it's about time."

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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