Are Personal Electronics on Planes Safe?

The aviation industry now differentiates between intentional emitters, such as cell phones, two connected electronic games or hand-held computers that receive e-mail, which are designed to put out radio frequencies, and unintentional emitters such as laptops or CD players. In most cases the first category is banned at all times during a flight while use of the weaker unintentional emitters is allowed when the plane ascends about 10,000 feet.

Untested Device

Megawave’s product was invented in 1998 on a $95,000 FAA grant: it uses invisible metal strips above seats to pick up electronic signals and warn flight crews when passengers are using hidden devices. It could also provide scientific data as to when devices cause navigational problems. But the FAA turned Megawave down for the $750,000 needed to continue the project, saying the agency didn’t have enough money, he said.

The FAA’s Duquette said the agency wasn’t in the business of funding commercial products, and that the request for funding came at a time when funding safety measures rising out of the TWA 800 crash were top priority.

John Sheehan, the president of Professional Aviation Inc. of Wilmington, N.C., who headed the committee that came up with the RTCA report, said he doubts the Megawave product will solve the problem — but says it might be worth a try.

“People have been trying to develop a viable device of this nature for 15 years. If they’ve developed such a device and it is a practical device, then I think it’s a good thing. I say that with some degree of reservation because there are so many different frequencies and modes of electronic emission that may be potentially harmful to an aircraft system,” and the Megawave device may not detect all of them, he said.

Cross’ questions spurred Congressman Jim McGovern to call the hearing and find out what the FAA is doing about personal electronics on planes, McGovern’s spokesman Michael Mershon said.

Viable Alternatives Sought

Lawmakers said the public is confused about rules airlines impose on the use of such portable electronic devices as cell phones, laptop computers, hand-held games and pagers.

Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., chairman of the aviation subcommittee, said there are “lingering suspicions” that airlines ban cell phones so passengers have to use their high-priced back-of-seat phones. He said cell phone bans are the second biggest cause of “air rage” after drinking.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., also complained of the “unbelievably expensive” and “really rotten service” of airplane phones. “We have to provide a viable alternative.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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