The FAA said that the working group, to be comprised of government, industry and consumer representatives, will explore an array of safety factors relating to the use of the devices and the potential for interference with critical radio frequencies in use by the flight crew, suggesting that the current rules are overly restrictive.
"With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "Safety is our highest priority, and we must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight."
Notably, the working group will not consider changing the rules prohibiting the use of cell phones for voice calls on flights.
Under current regulations, the use of electronic devices is generally prohibited until the pilot has made the determination that e-readers, tablets and other items won't cause interference with the plane's communications systems. That has meant that during takeoff and landing, those devices are off limits, a source of irritation for innumerable travelers.
The FAA's decision to revisit its policy, which presumably could result in a relaxing the current regulations, was welcome news for Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for wireless trade group CTIA, who called the rules "antiquated."
"It's about time," Carpenter wrote in a blog post responding to the FAA's announcement.
"It strikes me as silly that I can read a book at take-off, but if the book has been downloaded to an e-reader or tablet, then I have to wait until we've reached 10,000 feet or some arbitrary cut-off determined by the government or the airlines," Carpenter said. "Reading is reading and it shouldn't make a difference whether I bought a book or newspaper at Hudson News or downloaded the same content while waiting to board my flight."
Carpenter brushed off the purported safety concerns, citing reports that many commercial pilots now use tablets in the cockpit, while pointing out that other countries have relaxed their policies on personal electronic devices, including cell phones.
The Transportation Department said that the working group will convene this fall, with plans to dissolve after six months after it presents its recommendations to the FAA. The group will be comprised of representatives from the mobile and aircraft-manufacturing industries, as well as delegates from groups representing pilots and flight attendants, airlines and passenger associations.
The FAA is publishing a request for comment to evaluate the current policies concerning electronic devices in the Federal Register on Tuesday.
Among the issues that it will ask the working group to evaluate are the current methods for testing whether the use of devices during a flight is actually likely to cause interference with critical systems, and the potential for developing technical standards for device makers that could mitigate those concerns.
The group will also explore a certification mechanism for new airplane designs that addresses radio frequency emissions from devices, as well as the potential for improved data sharing between aircraft operators and device makers that could enable pilots to confidently clear the devices for use during takeoff, landing or in rough weather.
The FAA will accept comments for 60 days following Tuesday's Federal Register publication.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
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