Gadgets on a plane: Flight mode phones are now safe to use, confirms Europe's watchdog

Aircraft passengers in Europe can expect carriers to permit the use of mobile devices on flights in coming weeks, so long as the devices are operating in 'airplane mode'.

Europe's Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has updated its guidance on the use of devices such as smartphones, tablets and e-readers, confirming they can be switched on in 'airplane mode' without posing a risk to safety.

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The new decision on devices from EASA means mobile devices can now be switched on while planes are taxiing, taking off and landing.

EASA will now begin investigating how to connect the devices to mobile networks during flights and is expected to to publish the new guidance for that issue in early 2014.

"The review will take time and it must be evidence-led. We expect to issue new EU guidance on the use of transmitting devices on board EU carriers within the next year," EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas said in a statement.

Although the guidance confirms there's no risk to safety from having devices switched on in non-transmitting mode, it's still up to airlines to implement the new rules and flight crew may, for example, still ask passengers to stow away heavier items, such as laptops, during take-off and landing.

As EASA notes in the new guidance, existing regulations never banned the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs), although the regulations' wording previously put an onus on the operator to demonstrate that radio emissions from PEDs did not pose a risk to aircraft systems and equipment.

Now that EASA has confirmed PEDs in airplane mode do not pose a safety risk, operators no longer need to demonstrate that point. However, they still need to assess a number of other risks associated with factors such as a PED's size and weight and whether it requires stowage to prevent "injuries from projectiles".

EASA is also recommending airlines provide general PED information to passengers before a flight, clearly specifying:

  • which PEDs can be used/are not to be used throughout the flight/during critical phases of flight and taxiing;
  • if, when, and where PEDs are to be stowed during critical phases of flight and taxiing;
  • that the instructions of the crew are to be followed at all times.

The shift in European policy follows a similar move by the the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which recently began allowing consumers to use electronic devices at all points during a flight, subject to individual airline rules.

But any device that transfers data still needs to be in 'airplane mode' — transmissions over cellular networks, regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, are still prohibited while in flight.

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