Why Can't We Use Cell Phones On Planes?

Admit it. You know you're not supposed to use your cell phone on airplanes, but while the plane approaches lift-off and the flight attendants look the other way, you've been known to pull out your phone or BlackBerry to send off a furtive message or sneak in one last hushed call.

Or, even if you're not so bold, haven't you ever disembarked from a plane only to realize that you simply forgot to the turn the pesky thing off?

Every so often, we hear about the chaos or delay caused by the passenger who failed to switch off his cell phone, iPod or Nintendo DS. But, despite the millions of gadgets that take to the skies each year, not one accident has been conclusively attributed to interference from an electronic device.

So, why then, is the use of cell phones on planes still taboo?

Though there are technical issues at play, experts suggest the real reason has more to do with perceived public opinion than hard science.

And, as more and more foreign carriers outfit their planes with technology that enables air-to-ground communication, aviation experts say it might not be long before Americans too get the go-ahead to make phone calls from 40,000 feet up.

A Concern, Not Necessarily a Fact

"It's a concern rather than a fact that phones could radiate energy which in turn could cause interference with aeronautical systems," said David Russell, COO of OnAir, a Swiss company that provides several European, Middle Eastern and Asian airlines with air-to-ground communication systems.

Like the United States, several European countries have banned cell phones on airplanes. But, Russell said, as safety and ground telecommunications issues have been addressed by new technology, those bans have been lifted.

In April 2008, Air France became the first airline to give a trial run to a service that let passengers use their own phones to e-mail, text and make and receive phone calls. Oman Air, Royal Jordanian and Shenzhen Airlines have announced similar partnerships with OnAir.

But though in-flight mobile phone systems have been popping up around the world, U.S. regulators have been a harder nut to crack.

Simple Approach Doesn't Guarantee Safety

As most travelers know, once the cabin door closes, all MP3 players, electronic games, pagers, DVD players and other electronic devices must be turned off until the plane reaches 10,000 feet. The use of cell phones is prohibited anytime the plane is in the air.

For the Federal Aviation Administration, safety is the highest concern. Portable electronic devices, including cell phones, emit radio signals that officials worry will interfere with aircraft communications or flight control, navigational and other on-board electronic equipment.

Since 2003, the RTCA (for Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics), a non-profit FAA advisory group, has been examining electromagnetic interference from electronic devices.

And though it acknowledges that virtually all of the reported evidence for banning electronics below 10,000 feet and cell phones during the entire flight is anecdotal, it still maintains that caution is key.

Dave Carson, a Boeing official and co-chair of the RTCA committee charged with researching electronic devices on airplanes, told ABCNews.com that part of the difficulty in addressing the issue has to do with the differences between the world of consumer electronics and the world of avionics.

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