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.

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.