But the growing panoply and portability of electronic devices — smartphones, laptops, notebooks, e-readers, games — have become staples of modern life. Even obnoxiously loud cellphone conversations have faded into our everyday background noise.
The Consumer Electronics Association says that a decade ago, 70 percent of passengers carried electronic devices when they traveled by plane. The most popular devices were cellphones — few had Internet capability back then — followed by electronic calculators. An updated survey by the association shows that 99 percent of passengers travel with some kind of electronic device, usually a smartphone, closely followed by a laptop computer.
The Federal Aviation Administration this past week cleared the way for “gate-to-gate” use of most electronic devices if set to “airplane mode,” requiring individual airlines to submit plans by year’s end to show they can safely manage radio interference from the gadgets.
Foreign carriers, which generally take their lead from the FAA, are expected to follow quickly.
Laptops weighing more than 3 pounds will have to be stowed during takeoffs and landings as a precaution against the devices flying around the cabin during periods of heavy turbulence.
Now, passengers can use electronic devices only when the aircraft is flying at an altitude of 10,000 feet or higher. Soon, they’ll be able to work, watch movies, play games and generally goof off electronically from boarding to disembarking.
Curiously, the one big exception is cellphones that operate through cellular networks. That ban exists because of the Federal Communications Commission, which worries that cellular towers trying to track phone calls from planes flying hundreds of miles per hour will impair service for ground-based users.
More and more airlines are offering their passengers Wi-Fi to email, surf or search the net. Wi-Fi works through satellites, not ground-based towers.
Approving the valuable use of electronic devices aboard aircraft has been a long time coming. Now, let’s hope the airlines can restrain themselves from trying to charge passengers extra for playing “Angry Birds.”