European skies may soon be alive with the sound of small talk with new safety rules allowing the use of all portable electronics, including cell phones, at any time during flights.
Under the guidelines issued Friday by the European Aviation Safety Agency, European airlines can allow passengers to use electronics during the entire flight, without putting them into "airplane mode."
"We're basically opening the door where, in theory, you'll be able to continue making your phone call through the gate throughout the flight ... like you would on a train," spokesman Ilias Maragakis told The Associated Press.
Standing in the way is the difficulty of getting a cell phone signal at high altitudes, and also how passengers will react to the thought of sitting next to a chatterbox across the Atlantic.
That'll be up to the airlines to figure out as they implement the new rules. In most European trains, for example, there are "silent" cars where talking on phones is prohibited but it seems unlikely a scheme like that would work on anything but the largest jets.
In addition to phones, the guidelines apply to all other portable electronics, including book readers, tablet computers, mp3 players and other devices.
EASA, which is based in Cologne, Germany, said the new rules are effective immediately and apply to any airplane operated by a European-based carrier, no matter where the flight originates.
Airlines will now need to decide what devices they will allow and how they will allow them to be used. In practice, that will likely take several months as airlines will first have to certify that their planes aren't affected by transmission signals.
EASA cautioned that even within airlines, the devices allowed could depend upon the aircraft type. Older models would require more modifications to make sure the use of handsets is safe.
"Basically we are saying you can have it switched on, and it's up to the airline first to allow you," Maragakis said. He declined to say what, if any, airlines intended to offer gate-to-gate handset use.
Technically, internet and phone use is already possible on airplanes at high altitudes through satellite connections. Once again, it will be up to airlines to decide whether to allow passengers' handsets to connect to that system, and whether to charge for the service.
EASA's previous guidance, from last year, allowed electronic devices for almost the whole flight, so long as they were in "airplane mode," which keeps them from transmitting signals.
Similarly, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration last year lifted its own restrictions on the use of most personal electronic devices during takeoffs and landings — but not cellphone calls, which fall under the Federal Communications Commission. Passengers were also told to keep the devices on "airplane mode."
Before that, the FAA long had barred the use of electronic devices below 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) because of concern they could cause electronic interference with aircraft systems during landings, the phase of flight when accidents are most likely to occur.
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