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What took the FAA so long to lift the ban on electronics during flights?
Soon you'll be able to read Game of Thrones on your iPad, from takeoff to landing
Yay!
Yay! (Thinkstock)
T

he doors close, the plane taxis out from the gate, and soon you're soaring to your destination. Then it hits you: You forgot to turn your phone off.

Except those texts from your mom didn't jam the pilot's radio, and the plane didn't nosedive while you frantically fumbled for the power switch. Despite all the warnings about turning off your electronic devices, the flight goes just fine.

Soon though, you won't even have to worry about it. The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday announced it had "determined that airlines can safely expand passenger use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) during all phases of flight." Previously, such devices were allowed only when cruising above 10,000 feet.

Airlines will still have to test their fleets to ensure they can accommodate PEDs during all phases of flight, but the FAA said that passengers should be able to text, play video games, and Instragram their in-flight meals "gate-to-gate" by the end of the year.

Airborne calls, however, will remain banned since they're regulated by the FCC.

The change is a major shift in a half-century-old policy regarding the use of electronic devices on planes. Even as such tools became increasingly ubiquitous, the FAA resisted updating the rules, believing that an intense game of Angry Birds could screw with a plane's complex electrical equipment.

More specifically, the FAA was concerned that portable electronic devices could interfere with a plane's radio and navigation systems, posing a threat to aircraft trying to take off or land. That concern, though, proved to be largely overblown.

About one-third of fliers in a Consumer Electronics Association survey admitted to leaving their phones on during flight. And nearly three-quarters of flight attendants have reported seeing passengers breaking the rules, with no serious repercussions.

In the 1990s, studies concluded it was theoretically possible that cell phones could pose an interference problem for planes. Subsequent research, though, suggested that while electronic devices could indeed create interference, it would be so minimal as to not pose a genuine safety hazard.

Planes' electronics are insulated against foreign signals, and their radios run on frequencies not used commercially. So while there were 75 reported cases of interference between 2003 and 2009, according to CNN, there were no cases of planes falling from the sky because someone couldn't wait to play Words with Friends.

Further, it's possible that passengers actually cause more of a problem by turning their devices off and on all at once, "the equivalent of waking someone up with a dozen people yelling into bullhorns," as the New York Times' Nick Bilton put it in a 2011 story poking holes in the ban. If electronics really could down planes, he wrote, Homeland Security "wouldn't allow passengers to board a plane with an iPad or Kindle, for fear that they would be used by terrorists."

With pressure mounting from bored passengers and airline organizations, the FAA said earlier this year it would look into the issue. And in September, an advisory panel formally recommended passengers be allowed to use their electronics at all times, except during takeoff and landing when they could become flying projectiles.

Don't rush to boot up your laptop on the runway just yet. Airlines still get to decide for themselves if and when such devices can be used on their planes. Several have said they'll begin allowing PEDs at all times as soon as possible, while others are opting to do some more testing.

Jon Terbush is a staff writer for TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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