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Trying to clear the static on using electronics aloft

Is it safe to use cell phones, pagers and such in flight? Maybe yes -- but we aren't sure yet.

June 29, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

On a recent Southwest Airlines flight, my self-absorbed seatmate continued talking on his cell phone after the doors closed, while we taxied for takeoff. I asked him to stop. He did. Then he whipped out his personal digital assistant and began punching buttons.

At that point I gave up on policing him.

But I wondered: Was I being an interfering busybody, or was Mr. Digital breaking the law and endangering a planeload of people? Who makes the rules on electronic devices?

Southwest's guidelines, printed in its in-flight magazine, were so complicated that I couldn't really blame my seatmate. It looked as though you couldn't use a cell phone or pager on a plane unless you were on the ground and an entry door was open. Using a PDA in the air was OK -- but not during takeoff, taxiing or landing. Ditto for a laptop -- unless it had a wireless mouse or joystick. Then you couldn't use it at all.

A search for answers to my questions took me to an alphabet soup of government agencies and private groups: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and a few I'd never heard of, including the private RTCA Inc.

From them I learned that scientists aren't sure whether cell phones and other portable electronic devices, or PEDs, interfere with flight communications and navigation instruments. But there's a consensus that they might, and so the devices are regulated -- sort of.

"To our knowledge, there has never been an accident that has been caused by interference from portable electronic devices," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. "Nevertheless, we feel ... it is prudent to move toward the side of safety on when you can use them and when you can't."

In-flight rules for PEDs are influenced by a shifting landscape of law, science and politics:

The law: Federal law is surprisingly vague about PEDs, except for cell phones, which must be turned off on airborne planes. Violations "could result in suspension of service and/or a fine," the FCC rule states.

"Legally we could enforce [the rule] against individuals, but as a practical matter, we don't," said David Furth, associate bureau chief in the wireless telecommunications bureau of the FCC in Washington, D.C. Instead "we rely on the airlines."

The FCC's concern with cell phones is commercial, not safety related. "There's no question" but that cell phones operated on flights could interfere with cellular networks on the ground, Furth said. That's because cell phones in the air activate their highest level of power to seek out a faraway signal and their emissions travel farther than they do on the ground, given the lack of interference from buildings and other obstacles, he said.

The exception is the plane's seatback phone, which passengers can use for a fee. That's because that phone service is authorized by the FAA and FCC to operate on its own air-to-ground frequency, separate from other commercial networks.

By contrast, most of the FAA's oversight of PEDs is advisory only. Its brief law on the matter begins by stating that no one can operate "any" PED on a plane. But then it lists exceptions: portable voice recorders, electric shavers, hearing aids, heart pacemakers and any other PED that "the operator of the aircraft has determined will not cause interference" with navigation or communications.

The law doesn't mention cell phones, although an FAA advisory recommends restricting them, along with remote-control devices, citizens' band radios and other so-called intentional radiators -- devices designed to send out radio signals.

The FAA doesn't enforce the guidelines because they are voluntary, Dorr said. Airlines set their own policies on what is allowed, which vary. As a general practice, they bar use of intentional radiators in flight and allow other PEDS, such as portable computers (unless they have wireless capability), electronic calculators and games and most PDAs, to be used in the air above 10,000 feet.

The science: Can making a cell-phone call to Aunt Martha from 30,000 feet up cause the plane to crash? Not likely, scientists say, but there is evidence it could cause some problems. The data are contradictory.

In May, Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said its research showed cell-phone transmissions skewed navigation bearing displays up to 5 degrees, caused compasses to freeze and created other electronic mischief. For its tests, it cranked up the phones to maximum power and put them about a foot from the avionic equipment or its wiring.

By contrast, NASA's tests of eight cell phones two years ago showed low emissions that were "not likely to be much of a threat at all" to navigation equipment, said Jay Ely, electromagnetic research engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. But he conceded that the tests were limited.

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