Do Electronic Gadgets Really Affect an Airplane's Instruments?

Posted Mar 25th 2011 12:00 PMUpdated Mar 25th 2011 12:43 PM

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David Parker Brown

Shortly after boarding, flight attendants are required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to tell passengers to turn off all electronic devices including cell phones and laptop computers. But is it really necessary and what really happens if you don't?

The official reason for the requirement that electronic devices need to be turned off is to make sure passengers listen to the safety instructions from the flight attendants, reduce the presence of loose objects getting in the way in case of an emergency and to eliminate the possibility of the devices interfering with the airline's avionics.

It is not just about putting away your electronic devices, but actually shutting them completely down. Recently, there have been highly publicized cases of passengers getting caught ignoring the rules -- actor Josh Duhamel was kicked off a flight, for instance, for continuing to use his Blackberry when ordered not to.

Electronic devices must be kept off under 10,000 feet since take off and landing are two of the most critical parts of a flight, experts say. It's considered a matter of safety.

At lower altitudes there is less room to recover if something goes wrong, so, "aircraft navigation and course corrections are required to be more precise," Dave Carson, Boeing Cabin Systems Engineer told AOL Travel News.

The FAA's website indicates the agency is not fully sure how electronic waves might interfere with airline avionics, but they want to make sure passengers remain safe. According to the site, "there are still unknowns about the radio signals that portable electronic devices and cell phones give off."

Of course many airlines allow passengers to use cell phones once flights are on the ground. A few years ago American Airlines, for one, tested how cell phones would affect their planes electronics, and decided it was fine to allow passengers to turn on their cell phones after landing and while taxiing to the gate.

And in some places around the world, passengers can use their cell phone during flight. Singapore Airlines this year plans to introduce the option to passengers of staying connected at 35,000 feet; and Emirates Airlines, based in Dubai, has allowed cell usage since March 2008.

Will we see cell phones on American and other U.S. carriers? Not likely. "We are not seeking a way to use cell phones in flight. Our customers have made it clear they do not want phone conversations in flight," said American spokesman Tim Smith.

While the FAA is concerned about how cell phones might affect safety, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is more concerned about the infrastructure on the ground. According to the agency's website, the FCC prohibits the use of cell phones aboard aircraft, "because of potential interference to wireless networks on the ground."

U.S. airlines have certainly been moving towards more entertainment technology for passengers, however. And that begs the question, could airlines be motivated to restrict personal electronics to make more money off their own in-flight options?

Addison Schonland, president of airline consulting group, IAG, doesn't think so, but explained that additional revenue is very important for airlines. "Ancillary revenue is everything and whatever can be done to grow that gets attention."

Before airlines add any new technology for passengers – such as Wi-Fi or interactive TV – the FAA has to approve it for flight. Again, the concern is possible interference with electronic navigation.

"Our regulations say that the airline must prove to the FAA that there is no chance for electronic interference," Alison Duquette with the FAA explains.

Virgin America, which flies an all Airbus A320 fleet, has taken a lead in onboard offerings with seat-back inflight entertainment systems (IFE) that even include touch-screen shopping.

When asked if they have ever had any issues with any of their on-board electronics, Virgin America spokeswoman Abby Lundardini said, "All our IFE systems are rigorously tested to be in compliance and there have never been issues with this."

Aircraft manufactures Boeing and Airbus work closely with their airline customers on certification of systems, officials say.

Even in the last week, there were reports that Honeywell cockpit displays were blanking during testing of onboard Wi-Fi systems on Boeing 737s.

"Airplane systems are tested to rigorous electromagnetic standards, and Boeing supports our airline customers in the introduction of new electronics for our aircraft," Carson explained.

When Airbus finds a potential issue with one airline customer, they share that information with other customers, spokesman Clay McConnell said, "We are constantly working with our airline customers to share the best information."

Filed Under: News

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