Aviation: Cell Phones Cause of Incidents, Accidents

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If We Can Fly, Why Can't We Talk? by Elisa Batista

2:00 a.m. Feb. 15, 2001 PST The world is going mobile everywhere except in the air.

A Saudi Arabian army captain received 70 lashes earlier this month for using his mobile phone during an airplane's takeoff.

British oil worker Neil Whitehouse spent a year in jail for refusing to shut off his cell phone during a 1998 British Airways flight from Spain.

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See also: Is Phone Interference Phony? Are Airborne E-Devices a Danger? Unwired News: The Next Generation

Swiss investigators believe that mobile phone interference may have helped cause last year's crash of Crossair flight LX498, which went down shortly after takeoff from the Zurich airport, killing all 10 passengers on board.

A Slovenian flight on the way to Sarajevo made an emergency landing last month after the cockpit fire alarm went off. Investigators say a cell phone left turned on in the luggage compartment triggered the erroneous warning.

To the frustration -- if not incredulity -- of airplane passengers, whose only option to communicate with someone on the ground is airplane seat-installed phones, the aviation industry touted these incidents as more proof that cell phone use in flight is dangerous.

And that belief only reinforces the industry's resolve to keep permanent a ban on using the devices during flights.

"Beyond a shadow of a doubt, (handheld devices) can interfere under very precise circumstances," said John Sheehan, who headed an RTCA study showing that portable electronic devices could interfere with a plane's navigation and communication systems.

"But it's a rare occurrence."

Rules and regulations are increasingly at odds with social, political and economic phenomena. On one hand, there are passengers who would like to see all portable electronic devices banned because they find them annoying -- even the ticking away at a laptop computer's keyboard, said U.S. Rep. John Duncan, Jr. (R-Tenn.). The use of laptop computers is generally allowed for the duration of flight and airplane-seat installed phones can be used any time.

"It's sort of like smoking," Duncan said in a July hearing on whether PEDs really pose a safety hazard to passengers. "When people ask, 'Do you mind if I smoke,' most people are too polite to tell them that they are, even though they hope secretly that they will not smoke. And in the same way, people really find people next to them, or near them, using laptop computers to be an annoying nuisance, too."

Because more people than ever before own cell phones (and are using them everywhere they go), and there are more flights -- and capacity flights -- than ever before, there are also more people wanting to use their cell phones during flights than ever before.

But they can't.

What's more, many of the reasons are unclear, especially since many airlines have FAA-approved, seat-installed cell phones of their own. It costs about $3 a minute to make an in-flight call in the United States; a 20-minute call costing $60 doesn't exactly make company accountants jump for joy.

"I question (the prohibition of cell phones in flight) because they have a telephone if you pay for it," said Larry Murphy, vice president of sales and marketing for Flying Food Group.

Besides, Murphy says, "In private jets you can use your own phone."

Then why are cell phones and other wireless devices not allowed during flights? This question is a growing concern because of the increase of business-purpose flights, when many passengers face pressures to maintain constant contact with the ground.

Both the airline industry and the Federal Communications Commission ban the use of cell phones aboard commercial flights. But they do it for different reasons, reasons which are contradictory and scientifically unsubstantiated, critics say.

Safety is the main concern, which Federal Aviation Administration officials say is reason enough for the ban. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, they argue, to strongly suggest that wireless devices can interfere with aircraft instruments.

The FAA used the findings of the RTCA, an independent aeronautics adviser, to justify the ban, although it leaves enforcement up to the airlines. The RTCA's three studies, published in 1963, 1988 and 1996, say handheld devices (excluding cell phones) should be banned during "critical phases of flight," which the airlines have interpreted as takeoffs and landings.

The studies don't include "intentional transmitting devices" such as cell phones and two-way pagers, because the organization did not receive the devices from the cell phone industry, planes from the aviation industry and funding to conduct the study. The RTCA works on a "volunteer basis so we had to rely on these people for the free use" of their equipment, Sheehan said.

The FAA recommendation doesn't extend to private jets, which have different rules.

The FCC has its own cell-phone ban, but it has nothing to do with airplane safety. The FCC says signals emitted by phones in the air could occupy multiple cell towers on the ground and cause interference with calls on the ground. This interference might even allow analog cell phone users to listen to others' conversations on the ground.

However, no study has been conducted to prove this. What's more, the ban does not extend to SprintPCS and AT&T wireless phones because of an FCC "oversight," according to a former FCC engineer.

SprintPCS and AT&T wireless phones use a different frequency than other cell phones. The oversight might imply that a user of either phone could use them in flight, but most, if not all, airlines adhere to FAA guidelines and prohibit all mobile phones anyway.

"You try to write the rules so that they cover everything," said Dale Hatfield, a former FCC engineer who is now telecommunications program director at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "Since the FAA has its own rules, there's not a lot of pressure to fix that."

Airlines generally abide by the FAA's recommendation, but what they don't tell passengers is that no agency -- not even the RTCA -- has come up with definitive evidence of portable electronic devices interfering with a plane's instruments.

(second page of article omitted) ____________________________________

Kinda makes you wonder what effect cell phones have in hospitals, doesn't it?

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), March 13, 2001


<< Kinda makes you wonder what effect cell phones have in hospitals, doesn't it? >>

I don't know details of the technical interference, but indeed in some area of hospitals--such as cardiac care units where telemetry is used--there are often big signs warning visitors not to use cell phones.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), March 13, 2001.

I know if the airlines want to ensure that folks use their fones then the prices should be lowered.

When my cell fone would ring / or chat: it would cause our new digital phones at work to absolutely freak out, the old phones would get a hum but still work swell.

So I'm not very surprised about the effects on other equipment - Airplanes or hospitals.....

-- (perry@ofuzzy1.com), March 13, 2001.

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