It’s only a big deal because of the silliness of the ban on personal electronic devices (PEDs) during takeoffs and landings.  Pilots in commercial airline cockpits have been using tablets for a while now in both phases, yet passengers had to turn theirs off.  While cell phones and “my-fi” devices will have to remain turned off or in airplane mode, the FAA finally admitted that there is no safety issues with almost all PEDs at any stage of a commercial flight:

Airline passengers will be able to use electronics such as readers and games from throughout flights, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday.

Passengers should continue to check with airlines before using their smartphones, tablets or e-readers. Connecting to the Internet remains prohibited when the plane is less than 10,000 feet in the air.

Voice calls also remain prohibited during the entire flight, under a Federal Communications Commission rule.

Because of differences in equipment among airlines and aircraft, it will take some time for airlines to prove they can fly safely with gadgets on. But the FAA expects gadgets to be widely allowed by the end of the year.

During a brief press conference announcing the change, the FAA spokesman made clear that this isn’t going to be an instant change.  The FAA did identify a few PEDs that might interfere on a few aircraft (around 1% of those tested), and they want the airlines to demonstrate that they have procedures and modifications in place to deal with the problem before gaining approval for the change.  The FAA expects full compliance and approval from all domestic and international carriers by the end of the year, however, so the threshold will probably not be that difficult to meet. He also emphasized that passengers will probably still be told to turn off their PEDs during the safety briefing at the beginning of every flight, or at least to stow them, in order to make sure that the passengers pay attention to the routine explanations of safety procedures.

Cell phones still won’t be allowed except in “airplane mode,” which makes them local devices rather than communications devices.  That led to a silly question from the press about why passengers can’t use cell phones when United 93’s passengers did so on 9/11 and prevented a second attack on Washington DC. Presumably, if a flight gets hijacked, the FAA isn’t going to penalize passengers who go back to full operation on their cell phones in order to make warning calls.  The spokesman responded more diplomatically that most of the path for commercial flights are at altitudes that make cell phones useless anyway.  Besides, the last thing that airline passengers want to hear on a long flight is someone else’s inane cell-phone conversations.

Let’s give the FAA kudos for common sense in this case.  Too bad it took so long for them to use it.