WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Thursday it will allow airlines to expand the use of portable electronic devices in flight to include smartphones, tablets and e-readers, ending a long-standing ban.
"Most commercial airlines can tolerate radio interference from portable electronic devices," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C.
"It's safe to read downloaded materials, like e-books, calendars and to play games."
These activities are expected to be permitted during all phases of flight, including takeoff and landing, on the vast majority of U.S. flights, he said.
Inflight cellphone talking is not approved, Huerta said, noting that this continues to be governed by the Federal Communications Commission.
However, passengers will be able to connect with an airline's WiFi network and can use Bluetooth accessories, such as wireless mouse and headphones.
As a practical matter, cellphones should be kept in airline mode during flight, he said. Without this setting, cellphones would continue to search vainly for a signal while aloft, draining batteries.
Huerta said the guidance applies to U.S. airlines throughout their domestic and international routes. The next step is for airlines to submit plans for implementation after testing to make sure aircraft can tolerate this kind of radio interference.
Huerta said he sought updated guidance on the matter, since the current policy was put in place about 50 years ago.
In some cases of extremely low visibility, for perhaps 1 percent of all U.S. flights, some landing systems may not be able to tolerate radio interference, and in those cases passengers should follow the advice of flight crews, he said.
Within an hour of Huerta's announcement, Delta Air Lines said its customers would be allowed to take advantage of the new policy as soon as Friday, pending FAA approval of its plan.
All Delta aircraft have been tested to make sure they can tolerate passenger operation of personal electronic devices, Delta said in a statement.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which contributed to the FAA panel that made the recommendation, applauded the decision as it pushed for "uniform technical, operational, and training standards that will allow for the safe, managed expansion of PED usage by passengers."
The U.S. Travel Association, an industry group, praised the move as a "common-sense, win-win" policy.