Canadian travellers will soon be allowed to use portable electronic devices – including computers and tablets – at any time during a flight, but passengers will still be restricted from making cellphone calls or using WiFi.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announced Monday travellers will be able to use their cameras, electronic games, e-readers, tablets and computers from take-off to landing, so long as the gadget's transmission capabilities have been disabled. Federal officials started working with airlines toward the change months ago, with Air Canada saying it's ready to apply for the exemption "very shortly" and could fly under the relaxed rules within days.
"It's good news for air passengers and it's good news for the Canadian aviation industry," Ms. Raitt told reporters at the Ottawa International Airport, later adding: "Trust me, as a mom of a 12- and a 9-year-old, I'm pretty happy that we don't have to go through the whole, I would say, drama of turning off your Nintendo DS in the middle of a really important game where we have to save Pokemon before it's over."
The change brings Canada in line with the U.S. and the European Union, both of which announced similar plans last year. The new exemption under Canadian Aviation Regulations comes with certain key conditions: The airline must prove its fleet will be no less safe because of ramped-up device use, gadgets must be off during passenger safety briefings, and devices must be in a non-transmitting state, or "airplane mode."
Ms. Raitt said the latter restriction is important because sending and receiving messages on a cellphone, smartphone or tablet could interfere with an aircraft's navigation and communications systems. Passengers, then, will be allowed to compose e-mails during take-off and landing, but would still have to wait to send the messages until the plane is taxiing to the destination gate.
Travellers at the Ottawa airport were pleased to hear about the change, saying it gives them more freedom to use their devices, whether for work or leisure. "It sounds great," said Florida-bound Susan Yungblut, adding that she'll take advantage of the chance to compose e-mails and work on documents from the moment she boards. "Safety first, but if it's safe, sure."
WestJet welcomed the announcement and said it will apply for the exemption, noting in a statement it still has to demonstrate that radio frequency emissions from devices don't pose a risk to its systems or equipment. "This is in addition to training flight crews and amending operating manuals," it said, referring to the approval process. The airline expects travellers will enjoy greater gadget freedom early this summer.
Asked how flight attendants will police the "airplane mode" requirement, Ms. Raitt said U.S. carriers use a "variety of techniques" and that it's up to Canadian operators to determine how they'll ensure passengers follow the rules.
"To some extent we have to trust passengers, and flight attendants will have to use their judgment if they believe a passenger is not listening to instructions," said Derek Vanstone, an Air Canada vice-president. "We have to prove the airlines aren't affected by ranges of transmission, so even if somebody accidentally leaves their device on, it's not an issue of safety. But we'll be checking for compliance."
NDP Transport Critic Hoang Mai said the exemption is a step in the right direction, but added Transport Canada should make public the airlines' reports demonstrating the electronic devices won't impact safety.
The National Airlines Council of Canada lauded the move, while CUPE, which represents 10,000 flight attendants, had no comment Monday as the union was still reviewing the decision.