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End of device ban lifts burden for flight attendants

Flight attendants rejoiced when the FAA lifted the restriction on the use of small electronic devices during taxiing, takeoff, and landing.

AP File

Flight attendants rejoiced when the FAA lifted the restriction on the use of small electronic devices during taxiing, takeoff, and landing.

They made the polite, simple request hundreds of times a day, but each time flight attendants uttered, “Please turn off your electronic devices,” they risked passengers’ anger, aggression, or just plain rudeness.

One business traveler snapped, “You should turn your mouth off.” A movie star who wanted to keep playing “Words With Friends” swore at the crew, slammed the bathroom door so hard it alarmed the pilots — and was then kicked off the flight. (We’re looking at you, Alec Baldwin.)

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Children would burst into tears or bolt from their seats when they had to shut off a video.

“All the customers are looking at you with dagger eyes,” said a Boston-based JetBlue Airways flight attendant, Bebe McGarry.

Flight attendants around the country rejoiced Thursday when the Federal Aviation Administration lifted the restriction on the use of small electronic devices during taxiing, takeoff, and landing, relieving them of what has become one of the biggest headaches of their jobs.

On Friday, JetBlue, the largest carrier at Logan International Airport, became the first airline to lift the restriction.

“It was a hassle to try and tell people to turn their electronics off — especially when we couldn’t provide a good answer as to why,” said Johanna Ramos, another Boston-based flight attendant for JetBlue.

Indeed, as travelers who have forgotten to turn off their phones during flights already know, most commercial airplanes are resistant to electronic interference from smartphones, iPads, and Kindles, according to the FAA. Once an airline has demonstrated that its fleet can handle the electronic signals, it can allow passengers to use devices that have been switched to “airplane mode.”

Passengers will still not be allowed to talk on their phones in flight because of concerns by the Federal Communications Commission that phones hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles an hour could strain networks while trying to connect with cellphone towers.

Passengers also can’t connect their devices to their cell network, and they won’t be able to access the Internet until the plane’s Wi-Fi network is on, usually above 10,000 feet.

Laptops and other large electronics will have to be put away during takeoff and landing to ensure they don’t get knocked loose and hurt someone.

Of course, now that people are allowed to use their devices but not their cell networks, it will be difficult for flight attendants to tell if someone is surfing the Web or simply looking at vacation photos.

And passengers with access to music, games, and spreadsheets are bound to be even more distracted during safety demonstrations.

Some nervous fliers will also no doubt keep worrying that something could go wrong, and it will fall on the flight attendants, once again, to reassure them that using electronic devices is harmless.

“It’s always been a huge concern for passengers: ‘Oh, this plane’s going down if they don’t turn it off,’ ” said Julie Rigazio, a 28-year veteran of American Airlines who lives in Arlington.

The FAA started restricting electronic devices in 1966 after reports of interference with navigation systems when passengers began bringing FM radios onboard. Today’s planes are designed to be resistant to electronic interference, and that’s a good thing, considering that 99 percent of adults who travel with an electronic device bring one onboard, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

As flights have become more crowded, stressful, and delay-prone, passengers’ respect for flight attendants has dwindled considerably. McGarry, who started flying in the 1980s, said having to scold people about their electronic devices has only made it worse.

“It was really causing an unnecessary negative ambience in the cabin, because you felt like you had to constantly say, ‘Turn it off, turn it off,’ ” she said. Now, “we’ll be more heard when we have to talk to them in regard to safety issues that are really pertinent.”

Another upside: Passengers will be less demanding when they can play Candy Crush and listen to Jay-Z for the entire trip.

“Flights are much calmer when you have people being able to entertain themselves,” said Lenny Aurigemma, a 35-year veteran of American Airlines who lives in Cambridge.

Jeff Gabel, a Back Bay resident who travels about once a month, said the eased restrictions won’t change much about flying. But he’s relieved he’ll be able to more easily avoid his seatmates from the moment he sits down.

“I just like to put on music and zonk out to avoid the person sitting next to me who will chat my ear off about God knows what,” he said.

Some passengers, especially young ones, don’t know what to do when they’re told to put away their constant electronic companions, said JetBlue flight attendant John Layton. They smile and nod, then wait for the crew to go back to their seats so they can start scrolling through screens again.

Said Layton: “We’re finally saying it’s OK to do what we know you’ve been doing anyway.”

Material from wire services was used in this report. Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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