Airline passengers will soon be allowed to use a range of mobile electronic devices in flight with very few restrictions, US aviation authorities said Thursday.
The move by the Federal Aviation Administration put an end to stricter regulations that have barred the use of electronics during taxi, takeoff and landing for the past 50 years.
The changes are expected to take effect on most US-based carriers by the end of this year.
"Airlines can safely expand passenger use of portable electronic devices during all phases of flight," FAA administrator Michael Huerta told reporters at Reagan National Airport.
The relaxed safety guidelines came from a committee convened last year to study the matter, and included input from pilots, passengers, flight attendants, aviation manufacturers and experts from the mobile technology industry.
"The committee determined that most commercial airplanes can tolerate radio interference from portable electronic devices," Huerta said.
"It is safe to read downloaded materials like e-books and calendars, and also to play games."
However, in rare cases passengers may be asked to turn off their devices when there is low visibility due to poor weather, he said.
"Some landing systems may not be proven to tolerate the interference," Huerta said, describing this as "a very small percentage -- we are saying one percent of flights."
"If the captain asks you to shut off the device, it is for a good reason," he added.
Mobile phones still cannot be used for voice calls while in flight, due to rules from another federal agency, the Federal Communications Commission.
Passengers will be advised to use their mobile devices in airplane mode, which shuts off the cellular band technology.
But flight attendants will not be required to check individual devices, so the rule will likely go unenforced.
"There is no safety problem if it isn't (in airplane mode)," Huerta added.
"But you are going to arrive at your destination with a dead battery, and I don't think anyone wants that."
He also addressed concerns that passengers may become more distracted by their devices, making them more likely to ignore the flight attendants as they describe emergency procedures prior to takeoff.
The changes affect airline carriers that are under the regulatory authority of the FAA, meaning US-based carriers, and will apply to the full scope of their international and domestic operations, Huerta said.
The committee called on the FAA to work with international regulatory authorities so that expanded use of personal devices is "universally accepted."
European aviation authorities also said that they are planning to allow the usage of portable electronic devices during flights.
"It is clear that it is necessary to develop the rules in force and the conditions of their application," a spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) told AFP.
The new FAA guidelines are being distributed to airlines now.
Delta Air Lines said it was already making changes and would be ready to allow passengers to use mobile devices below 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) as early as November 1.
The very first FAA restrictions on personal electronics in flight date back to 1966, when studies showed that portable FM radio receivers caused interference with some plane navigation systems.
But some concern was expressed by Senator John (Jay) Rockefeller, chair of the committee on commerce, science and transportation.
"Having access to e-mail or a movie is not worth compromising the safety of any flight," he said, calling for "exhaustive oversight" of the changes by the FAA.
The new rules say bulkier electronic items must be still be stowed, either in the overhead bin or under the seat, during takeoff and landing.
Smaller devices can be held or put in the seat back pocket during takeoff and landing.
Browsing the Internet will continue to be possible on air carriers that provide Wi-Fi in flight, and Bluetooth technology for wireless keyboards will also be allowed.
"I think it'll be great," said Mike Sullivan, 62, a musician and therapist who described himself as a frequent traveler.
"It seems like there is always someone who doesn't want to turn off their device. It creates a little bit of tension."