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Appeals court says FAA can allow passengers to use cellphones during takeoff and landing

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WASHINGTON — Federal aviation officials acted within their authority in allowing airline passengers to use cellphone and other electronics during takeoffs and landings, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw out a lawsuit from the nation's largest flight attendants union that challenged the 2013 decision.

The 60,000-member Association of Flight Attendants argued that small electronic devices could distract passengers from safety announcements and become dangerous projectiles. The union said the Federal Aviation Administration had changed an agency regulation without going through required legal steps.

But the appeals court said the FAA has always had discretion on how to handle issues such as portable electronics and was free to change its interpretation of the rules. FAA officials said that cellphones and other small electronic devices were no more dangerous than books that passengers have been allowed to keep out.

The change in 2013 reversed guidance that had for years meant passengers stowed cellphones, tablets, and music and video players during takeoffs and landings. Under new guidance, airlines can let passengers use the devices during those times as long as the plane is properly protected from electronic interference and the airlines get the FAA's approval. Cellphones still must be in airplane mode when in use.

The FAA says that since the announcement, it has cleared 31 airline operators to let passengers use small electronics on takeoffs and landings. Last year, those operators together carried 96 percent of U.S. commercial passengers.

The court rejected the union's argument that the FAA action had changed an existing rule without following the proper procedures for inviting public comments. Judge Harry Edwards, writing for the three -judge panel, said the FAA's action was "nothing more than a statement of agency policy" or a new interpretation of an existing rule.

The FAA did request and receive public feedback before updating its guidance, telling the judges the agency considered some 1,000 responses, including one from the union.


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