Are cell phones and other personal electronic devices safe to use on airplanes?
It depends who you ask, but a new study conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and featured in an article in technology magazine IEEE Spectrum, says they could be.
"The data support[s] a conclusion that continued use of portable RF-emitting [radio frequency-emitting] devices such as cell phones will, in all likelihood, someday cause an accident by interfering with critical cockpit instruments such as GPS receivers," the article said.
The research is believed to be the first of its kind and comes as the FCC is soliciting opinions from the public about allowing cell phone use in airplane cabins.
The public is pushing for it, but could legalizing cell phone use and other portable electronic devices on airplanes put passengers at risk?
"We're not saying we've got a crisis on our hands," said Granger Morgan, one of the researchers. "We're just saying that, you know, as more and more wireless devices get on more and more airplanes, sooner or later we're going to have a problem."
With the permission of participating airlines, which insisted on remaining anonymous, Morgan and colleagues Bill Strauss, Jay Apt and Daniel Stancil used a small suitcase with some technical instruments and a laptop to monitor RF activity on 37 commercial flights.
They found that there was indeed a lot of activity and concluded that such activity may interfere with navigational equipment at a crucial point in a flight.
The authors point to a NASA study that looked at the effects of a specific Samsung cell phone that some pilots had complained had caused their onboard GPS receivers to lose satellite lock.
"It reported that there were emissions in the GPS band capable of causing interference," the article said. "Disturbingly, though, they were low enough to comply with FCC emissions standards.
"Our data and the NASA studies suggest to us that there is a clear and present danger: Cell phones can render GPS instrument useless for landings."
Because pilots increasingly rely on GPS technology to aid in landings, such interference could be potentially catastrophic.
According to the article, there are mountains of anecdotal evidence showing electronic devices can have a dramatic effect on onboard equipment.
"There have -- as we said in the article -- been some events that are suggestive," said Morgan. "And there have certainly been cases where the navigation system seems to be off, and they go back and ask somebody to turn off something and then it recovers and then they ask him to turn it back on, and then the problem re-occurs."
As an example, Morgan and his colleagues point to an alarming incident where the flight crew of an unnamed airline experienced a 30-degree navigational error that was immediately corrected after a passenger turned off a DVD player.
Perhaps more frightening is the fact that the error recurred when the passenger was asked to turn the device back on.
"Game electronics and laptops have been the culprits in other reports in which crew verified in the same way that a particular PED [personal electronic device] caused erratic navigation indications," the article said.