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U.S. to allow expanded electronic device use on flights

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Airline passengers will soon be able to use certain electronic devices throughout their entire flight after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration ended a long-standing ban on Thursday.

Mobile phone calls remain barred under Federal Communications Commission rules. But fliers will be free to keep smartphones, tablets and e-readers running in "airplane" mode.

Delta Air Lines Inc and JetBlue Corp quickly filed plans with the FAA to show that their aircraft can tolerate radio signals from electronic devices, a condition required by the regulator.

The change is likely to boost the use of gadgets such as Amazon Inc's Kindle readers or Apple Inc's iPad.

"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."

Passengers will be able to connect with an airline's WiFi network and can use Bluetooth accessories, such as wireless mouse and headphones.

"ALWAYS-ON" CONNECTIVITY ON THE HORIZON

A big winner from the change could be Gogo Inc, whose shares closed 4.5 percent higher. The company supplies Internet service to about 80 percent of U.S. aircraft.

The FAA's move is "another favorable tailwind," Gogo Chief Executive Michael Small told Reuters.

The FAA's decision is likely to move more passengers toward "always-on" connectivity, said Jonathan Schildkraut, an analyst at Evercore Partners in New York.

"Any increase in time spent connected is viewed as a positive," he said.

Technology fans have recently decried the "high cost to the traveling public" of passengers not having unfettered access to their mobile devices.

"More than 105 million hours of disrupted technological activity on domestic flights is projected in 2013 — an estimated 104 percent increase since 2010 - due to the FAA ban on the use of devices during takeoffs and landings," according to a May 2013 study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitcan Development at Chicago's DePaul University.

The FCC in May started deliberations on a proposal that would offer a new type of in-flight broadband service promising U.S. fliers higher Wi-Fi speeds and better connections. The proposal, which has been pushed for years by wireless equipment maker Qualcomm Inc, seeks to open up more radio airwaves for airborne Internet access.

In a statement, acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clybourn said the agency continues to study how best to promote consumers' and businesses' ability to use wireless devices on aircraft and elsewhere.

As a practical matter, cellphones should be kept in airplane mode during flight, the FAA's Huerta 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.

POLICY WAS 50 YEARS OLD

Huerta said he sought updated guidance on the matter, since the current policy was put in place about 50 years ago.

Among those giving input to the FAA for the long-awaited decision were representatives of airlines, plane manufacturers, passengers, flight attendants and the mobile technology industry.

A committee set up to recommend how the rules should change started work in January on what was to be a 6-month project. It later got a 2-month extension to work on guidance on how airlines could assess the safety risk posted to critical flight systems.

A backer of the change, the Consumer Electronics Association on Wednesday urged the agency to ease restrictions before the busy holiday travel season. It said the FAA's move "will bring policy on in-flight use of devices up to speed with the 21st century."

Huerta said that 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.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA 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.

But one lawmaker warned airlines and fliers to curb their enthusiasm and focus on safety first.

"Having access to e-mail or a movie is not worth compromising the safety of any flight," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko and Alina Selyukh in Washington, Alwyn Scott in New York and Karen Jacobs in Atlanta, writing by Ros Krasny, editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Maureen Bavdek and Richard Chang)

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