Are Personal Electronics on Planes Safe?

A congressional subcommittee hearing about the safety of cell phones, computers and even hearing aids on airplanes has been the buzz of Capitol Hill today.

A 1996 study on how personal electronics affect airplane navigational systems came up inconclusive. But the Federal Aviation Administration has banned the devices anyway, saying they can’t take the chance.

“We submitted the proposal exactly two years ago, to the day, and we’ve been waiting by the phone ever since,” said Marshall Cross, president of Boylston-based Megawave Corp.

The Massachusetts company says they can show who’s using electronic devices without permission, but that the FAA won’t ante up the $750,000 to build the gadgetry to find out.

Experts on the issue, however, believe that there is no hard proof that cell phones and other electronic devices pose safety risks on an aircraft, but bans on their use should continue as a precautionary measure, experts told Congress today.

“We are preventing the extremely remote event,” the Federal Aviation Administration’s Thomas McSweeny said at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing.

Risky Radiation

Witnesses said that while there have been anecdotal incidents in which portable electronic devices may have interfered with aircraft operations, they have never been able to repeat such interference under controlled conditions.

Despite that lack of hard evidence, such interference “should be viewed as potentially hazardous and the source of an unacceptable risk to aircraft,” said David Watrous, president of RTCA Inc, an advisory group to the FAA that issued reports on electronic devices in 1963, 1988 and 1996.

An airline industry-run advisory organization called the RTCA released a report in 1996 saying that the risk of portable electronics interfering with navigational systems “is low at this time,” but that the devices were “potentially hazardous and an unacceptable risk” during takeoff and landing.

The only hard evidence that electronics cause problems is anecdotal, but scary. An aviation safety database kept by NASA recorded incidents in 1995 and 1997 where malfunctioning navigational systems were apparently fixed when flight crew forced passengers to switch off laptops and cell phones.

That’s enough for the FAA, said spokeswoman Alison Duquette.

“We’re pretty conservative here… we definitely err on the side of caution,” she said.

Cell Phones Problematic

Cell phones on planes, at least, cause proven problems; the FCC bans them because ground-based cell towers get confused by signals from the air.

Personal electronics emit signals that fly out airplane windows and get picked up by navigational antennas, Megawave’s Cross said. The costly seat-back phones on the planes transmit on strictly controlled frequencies and don’t cause problems, he said.

But passengers don’t seem to be convinced. After alcohol, restrictions on personal electronics are the second leading cause of “air rage” among travelers, subcommittee staffers said.

McSweeny said among the concerns are that electronic devices could cause errors in instrument landing or global positioning systems. He noted that many hospitals prohibit cell phone use because they may interfere with health monitoring devices.

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