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Airlines like Delta and British Airways recently started allowing passengers to use tablets and smartphones during takeoffs and landings, yet they still restrict the use of laptops to within the air only. Is there a justifiable reason for this (i.e. safety; regulations), or is this policy just arbitrarily chosen?

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Apart from weight/size issues the odds of electrical interference have been long cited. This is becoming a non issue and has in fact not been a genuine major one for some while. As this fact is officially recognised the weight and size issues start to predominate. | As a parallel - QANTAS have for some while allowed the use of digital camera during ALL phases of flight including takeoff and landing. They used to say actively what was allowed but now simply exclude them from the not-allowed-at-takeoff/landing list. –  Russell McMahon Dec 19 '13 at 23:46
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... Almost all other airlines i've flown with still disallow electronic cameras of any size during takeoff/landing. –  Russell McMahon Dec 19 '13 at 23:47
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up vote 11 down vote accepted

The Expanded use of the Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) was initiated by FAA a few weeks ago. The decision was made by a group of experts from FAA, airlines, manufacturers, pilots and cabin crew.

This expanded use allow passengers to use their devices at all times (from gate to gate) with little restrictions. Including:

  • Devices must be secured in the seat pocket during the actual takeoff/landing rolls.
  • They should be in flight/airplane mode.
  • Larger devices are explicitly excluded from this expansion of use, from FAA 8900.240 re expanded use of PEDs:

Large PED, such as full-size laptops, must be safely stowed so as not to present a hazard in the event of severe turbulence, crash forces, or emergency egress.

You can also read FAA's press release regarding the expanded use of PEDs for more details.

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I would say this is mostly for safety reasons. The EASA states the following:

PED stowage should be considered during critical phases of flight and taxiing to prevent possible injuries from projectiles and to allow for egress from the aircraft. Operators should ensure compliance with AMC1 CAT.OP.MPA.160. Operators should clearly identify the phases of flight in which PEDs are to be stowed and determine suitable stowage locations, taking into account the PED’s size and weight.

So in short it's to prevent laptops from flying around (them being a lot heavier than mobile phones or tablets). And the other reason is that it doesn't hinder you from getting out fast of the plane when necessary.

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