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Technicalities holding up FAA decision on electronics on airplanes

The Federal Aviation Administration's efforts to move forward with allowing passengers to use electronic devices during takeoff are reportedly being slowed by technicalities and the desire to develop a single, concise, future-proof set of regulationss.

Speaking with The New York Times' Bits Blog, a pair of sources close to the FAA said that the agency is under considerable pressure to relax the rules that require passengers to power down their devices prior to takeoffs and landings. The industry working group created by the administration to address the issue will likely give its final report this summer, and the FAA hopes to announce such a rule change in by the end of the year.

Holding up the process is the reality of the many types of electronic devices passengers bring onto airplanes now. In addition to tablets such as Apple's iPad — which can also pack cellular connectivity — passengers bring cellular phones, Wi-Fi-enabled ereaders like Amazon's Kindle, portable gaming devices with Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity, and more.

The FAA's working group, then, must account for these sorts of devices and determine what mode they should be put into when on an airplane. Many electronic devices currently feature an "airplane mode," in which they do not send or receive wireless signals, but that term can mean different things across different devices, so the group must develop a standard.

The group is also concerned with making sure that flight attendants "do not have to be the social police for which devices are acceptable during flight." Also a concern is making sure that the recommended rules apply to devices that aren't on the market today.

Unsatisfied with the FAA's progress on the issue, Missouri's Senator Clair McCaskill recently announced that she planned to introduce legislation circumventing the agency and allowing passengers to use their electronics from takeoff through to landing. McCaskill's bill is still in the formative stages, and will likely only serve as pressure on the FAA.

"So it's OK to have iPads in the cockpit; it's OK for flight attendants," McCaskill has complained. "Yet it's not OK for the traveling public. A flying copy of 'War and Peace' is more dangerous than a Kindle."