Gadget-loving travelers, rejoice: You will soon be able to complete entire flights without being torn apart from your beloved iPhones, Kindles and Androids -- even for a minute.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday announced long-awaited changes that will allow U.S. airlines to permit passengers to use electronic devices during "all phases of flight," from gate to gate. Soon, you'll be cleared to crank that iPod while your plane rumbles out of San Francisco International Airport, or catch the end of that downloaded movie on your tablet while your flight touches down in Oakland or San Jose.
The FAA expects all U.S. airlines to relax restrictions on "personal electronic devices" by the end of the year. With the busy holiday travel season approaching, Delta and JetBlue announced plans to be the first to allow gate-to-gate gadget use, as soon as the FAA officially approves their plans.
For years, passengers have been forced to turn off anything with an on-off switch from the time the cabin door closes until the plane reaches 10,000 feet, and then power down the gadgets again during descent and landing. Officials had feared the gadgets would interfere with aircraft navigation and communications equipment.
"This day in age, I have no idea why they still ask folks to do that," said David Ernst, 49, a wireless program manager from Richmond who flies occasionally from Oakland International Airport. "Frankly, most people don't even (turn) off that stuff anyway; they put it to sleep or put it in airplane mode."
A panel of experts concluded in a Sept. 30 report to the FAA that most commercial airplanes are advanced enough now that they can safely operate while passengers use their personal electronics.
"We believe (Thursday's) decision honors both our commitment to safety and consumers' increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of their flights," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement announcing the changes.
The new policy will not create an electronics free-for-all, however.
Cellphones can be used to play games or surf the Web on Wi-Fi in "airplane mode," when no signal bars are showing, but fliers will still not be able to make in-flight cellphone calls or texts or use 3G or 4G Internet. Laptops, because they are heavier than tablets and pose a hazard if they fly around the cabin, need to be stowed during takeoffs and landings.
Passengers will be advised to look away from their screens during the flight crew's safety presentation before takeoff. And in about 1 percent of flights, when planes have reduced visibility during landing, pilots will ask passengers to turn off their gadgets.
Despite those restrictions, air travelers -- used to security lines, cramming into smaller planes and hauling luggage on board to avoid checked bag fees -- welcomed a rare bit of news that should make flying more enjoyable.
"It's annoying to have to bring something extra to do for takeoffs and landings," said San Jose resident Theresa Zysk, who was playing a Nintendo DS at Mineta San Jose International Airport on Thursday after a trip from Reno, Nev.
At San Jose's airport Thursday, Ryan Doss, traveling from Georgia, said the new rules were "kind of overdue, I suppose."
A Consumer Electronics Association survey 10 years ago found that the second-most-common device passengers brought on board was a calculator. Now, 99 percent of passengers bring devices with them during flights -- most commonly cellphones and laptops, the group found.
"The rules have caught up with today's technology," Robin Hayes, JetBlue chief commercial officer, said in a statement.
Although the new rules would apply to U.S. legs of international flights, passengers would have to comply with local laws when arriving or departing in a foreign country. Currently, most countries have their own prohibitions on electronic device use. However, they tend to follow the FAA's lead and could relax their own rules in the near future.
Staff writer Nhat V. Myer and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.
Gadgets OK from gate to gate
Each airline must get approval from the FAA to ease restrictions on in-flight gadget use
OK at all times: Tablets, MP3 players, e-readers, electronic toys
Not OK: Calling and texting, though cellphones can be used in "airplane mode"
Must be stowed during takeoff and landing: Laptops and other heavy devices