On Thursday, the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) eased regulations against airline passengers using their Personal Electronic Devices (PED) during the flight. On Friday at 4:30 PM EDT, only 15 minutes after receiving FAA approval for the regulation change, JetBlue’s Flight 2302 from New York's JFK to Buffalo became the first commercial flight to allow passengers to use their PEDs gate-to-gate.

The flight crew of JetBlue 2302 were informed by email and an Aeronautical Operational Control message almost as soon as approval came through, but the change in FAA regulations took a surprisingly long time to change – 47 years, to be exact. Many people believe that the ban on PEDs dates only back to the 1990s, but the first regulations against personal electronics on planes were issued in 1966.

In the ‘60s, the worry wasn't about laptops and mobile phones, but radio transceivers, which a study panel concluded could dangerously interfere with VHF Omni Range navigation systems and similar navigation aids. This was about as far as it went in the days when airliners were mostly controlled by hydraulic systems or step motors, but when the first fly-by-wire systems came online, interference was once again front and center and the regulations became stricter.

Though later technological advances made navigation and flight control systems less vulnerable, the electronic ecology of handheld devices expanded with the invention of mobile phones, portable computers, and their descendants. Worse, not every airline or airport is fully modern and older planes and navigation systems are often still vulnerable. This is one of the reasons why the new relaxation of the regulations depends in the end on each airline’s approval and implementation.

Previous to Thursday’s FAA announcement by Administrator Michael Huerta, airline passengers on most flights could not use their PEDs during taxi, takeoff, landing, or at an altitude below 10,000 ft (3,000 m). Now, if an airline can gain FAA approval, it can allow gate-to-gate use; something that the FAA sees many more airlines doing by the end of the year.

The FAA pointed out that devices will still need to be held or stowed during takeoff and landing, and that there would still be some limited exceptions, such as in rare times of low visibility when the plane must rely on radio beacons. In addition, the prohibition against voice mobile phone calls would remain in place because of separate FCC regulations against airborne calls. In the case of phones, the FAA wants them placed in Airplane mode or with service disabled, though Bluetooth and Wi-Fi functions are still allowed.

Regulations were set up in 1996 to avoid interfering with navigation beacons (image Wikipedia/Ben Pirard)

The FAA says that its decision was based on information from a panel made up of the airlines, aviation manufacturers, passengers, pilots, flight attendants, and the mobile technology industry. From this, the PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) concluded that many airlines could meet that standards necessary to allow the use of PEDs, and the FAA sent out new guidelines to help airlines fast track approvals.

“We believe [Thursday’s] decision honors both our commitment to safety and consumer’s increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of their flights,” says Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “These guidelines reflect input from passengers, pilots, manufacturers, and flight attendants, and I look forward to seeing airlines implement these much anticipated guidelines in the near future.”

Sources: FAA, JetBlue