Suppliers Of In-Flight Cell Phones Stress Safety

Two vendors of phones used on airplanes noted that a recent Carnegie Mellon study, which questioned the safety of cell phones on flights, covered a time period some three years ago. Since then, additional steps have been taken to ensure that passengers can't interfere with aircraft navigation systems, the vendors said.

W. David Gardner, Contributor

March 14, 2006

3 Min Read

A recent study by Carnegie Mellon University on the potential dangers of cell phone use on commercial aircraft flights has prompted two suppliers of communications services to aircraft passengers to state that their services are safe.

Both parties, Connexion by Boeing and OnAir, noted that the Carnegie Mellon study, which examined the use of cell phones, covered a time period some three years ago; since then additional steps have been taken to ensure that passengers can't interfere with aircraft navigation systems.

"Certainly there's not been any damage or crashes caused by magnetic interference by cell phones or other (consumer) devices," said Dave Carson, a Connexion spokesman, in an interview. "There's been some allegations, but no evidence."

The Boeing business unit has been providing broadband services on international flights since it inaugurated the Connexion service with Lufthansa in May 2004. Since then the service has been offered on long flights by several international airlines including El Al, Japan Airlines, Korean Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines, and Singapore Airlines.

OnAir is beginning to introduce its system as part of a certification process under the auspices of Airbus. "OnAir's technology will ensure that there will be no interference with the aircraft systems, nor with ground telecommunications networks," said Charlie Pryor, OnAir spokesman, in an e-mail. "Airlines will be able to control the use of the service -- they can turn it off completely, or turn off the voice element, leaving just data on… OnAir's research shows that the majority of passengers would want to have the option of using the service, as much for data as for voice, if not more."

Both Connexion and OnAir said they do not challenge the Carnegie Mellon study, which, they said, was carried out by qualified researchers who did serious work. In fact, they agreed with the study that take-off and landing are the critical times during which cell phone usage should remain banned to preserve the integrity of aircraft navigation GPS systems. The Carnegie Mellon study, which was led by Bill Strauss, an expert in aircraft electromagnetic compatibility at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Patuxent River, Md., found that some passengers violated the cell phone usage ban, creating a potential danger.

"Take-off and landing," stressed Carson. "These are the most critical phases when critical navigation gear is [in use.] You don't want a cell phone to be part of any problem. [The ban] is never going to go away."

Carson has been a longtime member of the U. S. federal RTCA 202 Advisory Committee that has been examining the role of portable electronic devices. The committee makes reports to the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority and the Federal Communications Commission. The agencies, which have banned the use of cell phones on U.S. domestic flights to date, are expected to make a ruling on the issue later this year.

Carson, who noted that Connexion users on international flights now regularly use their laptops to make VoIP calls without incident, said examination of the devices is becoming more complex as a new breed of cell phone-cum computer is being increasingly used by passengers. "Many new cell phones are PDAs," Carson noted.

Cell phone usage on commercial aircraft can be a highly charged issue said Terrance Scott, a Boeing spokesman, who added that the noise factor can be largely eliminated by the use of $5.95 noise-canceling headsets.

OnAir's Pryor said: "There is, as you would expect, a vocal minority that opposes the idea of mobile phones on planes -- and in fact, they probably oppose the idea of mobile phones in any public place."

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