The rules on when to turn off electronic devices on airplanes have long been a sour, and sometimes contentious, point for travelers. But faced with a surge of electronics on airplanes and under pressure from a growing number of tech-savvy - and increasingly tech-dependent - passengers, the Federal Aviation Administration recognized that change was inevitable.
This week, an FAA advisory panel will meet to complete its recommendations to relax most of the restrictions. The guidelines are expected to allow reading e-books or other publications, listening to podcasts, and watching videos, according to several of the panel's members who requested anonymity because they could not comment on the recommendations. The ban on making phone calls, as well as sending and receiving emails and text messages, is expected to remain in place, the panel members said.
The panel will recommend its new policy to the FAA by the end of the month and it will most likely go into effect next year.
The coming change represents a cultural milestone of sorts for the digital age, the moment when mass travel and mass communication finally meet.
Airlines and pilots have reported hundreds of instances over the years where they suspect electronic devices caused some cockpit instruments to malfunction. But the evidence is largely anecdotal, and regulators have never been able to establish conclusively that electronic devices interfered with flight instruments.
Even with the ban, many passengers forget to turn off their devices or ignore calls by flight attendants to power off. Airlines are expanding the use of wireless systems on board, offering live television and even considering streaming movies or music directly to passengers' own devices. But changing aviation safety policy is a slow process.
For many passengers, the ban has been a source of frustration. John Shahidi, a technology entrepreneur, ignored the order to turn off his cellphone late last year, but this time a flight attendant caught him sneaking a look at his iPhone, he said - and instead of a gentle scolding, she opted for a public shaming. She stood there, he said, staring at him, and announced that the plane would not take off until he had powered down the phone.
"It was so utterly embarrassing," said Shahidi, the chief executive of RockLive, a startup company from San Francisco.
Last year, the FAA created the advisory panel of industry experts to update the rule. It was supposed to report back in July but requested an extension until the end of September to sort out some technical materials, an indication of just how complicated the deliberation has been.
"This is like shooting at a moving target," said Douglas Kidd, the head of the National Association of Airline Passengers and a member of the advisory committee looking into all these issues. "We have to make sure the planes can handle this. But there's a lot of pressure on the FAA because passengers are very attached to their devices."
The panel wants to be able to present a single policy from "gate to gate" that would apply to all airlines, and all types of airplanes, according to several of its members who requested anonymity because the discussions were private. Instead of testing devices, the FAA will ask that the airlines certify that their planes can tolerate interferences - something they have done when installing Wi-Fi on board, for instance. Once that is done, the airlines can allow electronic devices, perhaps by next year.
The review has not included mobile voice communications, which are prohibited by the telecommunications regulators at the Federal Communications Commission because they interfere with transmissions between cell towers on the ground.
More than 2 billion portable electronic devices will be sold this year, according to the research firm Gartner. Air travelers own a disproportionately large share of these devices, particularly smartphones and tablets, whose use is growing at the fastest rate. Shipments are expected to more than double by next year compared with 2012, to 276 million units.
A study released this year by two industry groups, the Airline Passenger Experience Association and the Consumer Electronics Association, found that as many as 30 percent of passengers said they had accidentally left a device on during takeoff or landing.
"Every time I fly, when landing or right before we touch down, I hear pings, and bings and chirps, because people never turn off their phones in the first place," said Capt. Sean P. Cassidy, the first vice president at the Air Line Pilots Association, and an Alaska Airlines pilot. "Rather than stick our head in the sand and expect people will modify their behavior, the FAA is approaching this very methodically and purposefully."
Today's most popular devices, aviation experts said, use so little power that they are unable to interfere with a plane's aeronautics.
Flight attendants and safety advocates are concerned that laptops and tablets could turn into dangerous projectiles if a flight encounters turbulence while landing or a pilot decides to abort takeoff and suddenly brakes.
The FAA does not ban the devices, but it requires airlines to prove they do not pose a flight risk. Since that would mean testing thousands of types of devices, with more introduced each month, the airlines have simply banned their use during takeoff and landing.
The effort to regulate electronics on planes began in the late 1950s, when studies found that portable FM radio sets caused interference with very-high frequency omnirange systems, known as VORs, common navigation systems.
The rule has been updated repeatedly over the years as technology evolved, and it now permits the use of devices above 10,000 feet, where potential interference with flight systems is deemed to be less hazardous.
Modern jets are packed with electronic systems, like digital displays and fly-by-wire controls, that are certified to withstand interference from personal electronics. But planes also have a wide range of systems - including global positioning, traffic collision and avoidance, emergency transponding and automatic flight guidance - that rely on ground or satellite signals.
The FAA has noted that some sensitive navigation and communications systems and surveillance radio receivers "may be susceptible at certain frequencies to spurious radio frequency emissions" from passenger electronics.
A 2005 study by Jay J. Ely, a NASA researcher, predicted that the "unprecedented age of personal connectivity" would lead to a surge in electronic devices that are always on, constantly emitting data, and "would certainly impact the safety and security of air travel."
The report cites several government studies conducted in the 1990s that found that some devices, operated under certain conditions, interfered with plane systems.
Pilots have also reported several episodes they suspected were caused by interference from passenger devices. In one case, collision alarms sounded in the cockpit of a Boeing 737-800, "allegedly generated by a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop computer," according to a report in NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System, a database that allows pilots to voluntarily share episodes without fear of retaliation.
But finding an indisputable link has eluded industry experts.
Surveying its flight and maintenance records from January 2010 and October 2012, Delta Air Lines found that pilots and mechanics mentioned electronic devices as a possible source of interference 21 times in about 2.3 million flights. But the airline was not able to confirm these suspicions. And it concluded that, while the possibility existed, such events were so rare that passengers should be allowed to use their devices in all phases of flight, including takeoff and landing.
Kirk Thornburg, the managing director for aviation safety at Delta and also a panel member, said, "It's hard to answer the question definitively: Does it or doesn't it cause interference?" He added, "Most of what you find is anecdotal evidence."
While some passengers look forward to leaving their print books and magazines at home, others do not see a need to change the rules.
"It doesn't really seem like an inconvenience to me - it's just 20 minutes or so without your devices," said Greg Pritikin, a screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles. "I've almost come to fisticuffs with some passengers who refuse to turn off their phone. I take airplane safety very seriously."
By JAD MOUAWAD and NICK BILTON
The New York Times