- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

Capt. Paul McCarthy says he has all the proof he needs that cell phones and other electronic devices can interfere with cockpit equipment and that bans on their use should remain in place.

Capt. McCarthy was piloting a domestic flight a few years ago when he noticed a piece of navigation equipment malfunctioning. A flight attendant found a passenger using a hand-held video player to watch a movie.

When Capt. McCarthy asked the passenger to turn off the video player, the interference disappeared.

"That was good enough for me," Capt. McCarthy, executive air safety chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, told the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's aviation subcommittee Thursday.

Despite that episode, no studies have explained the correlation between electronic devices and interference with airplane cockpit equipment.

"I cannot tell you definitively if mobile communications and other portable electronic devices raise the potential for harmful interference with aircraft avionics equipment," Dale Hatfield, head of the Federal Communications Commission's office of engineering and technology, testified before the subcommittee.

The FCC not the Federal Aviation Administration banned the use of cell phones during flights in 1991 due to concern that calls from planes send a signal to multiple antennae. That could clog the networks transmitting cell phone calls, the FCC said.

Cell-phone use is banned during flights. Most other electronic devices are banned below 10,000 feet.

The Aviation Safety Reporting System, a voluntary database maintained by NASA, includes 69,000 cases of safety problems reported by flight crews from January 1986 to June 1996. Flight crews suspect that in 52 of those occurrences a passenger's cell phone or other electronic device caused the safety problem by producing an incorrect reading in equipment.

Attempts to replicate interference in controlled tests haven't helped researchers figure out why interference occurs when it does.

Without that evidence, the ban on cell-phone use should remain in place, witnesses said.

"The potential of personal electronic device-related interference should be viewed as potentially hazardous and the source of an unacceptable risk to aircraft involved in passenger-carrying operations," said David Watrous, president of District of Columbia-based RTCA Inc., a nonprofit group studying aviation and aviation electronics.

But the lack of evidence tying cell phones to interference with cockpit equipment also means the federal government needs to do more to figure out just why problems with equipment occur, said Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat.

"A device that could detect and pinpoint [personal electronic devices] within an aircraft's cabin could conclusively resolve whether or not there is a correlation between [the devices] and avionic anomalies," Mr. McGovern said.

Without hard evidence and a change in the cell phone ban, consumers have to rely on phones that airlines have embedded in seats.

But the phones are costly to use. GTE Corp.'s Airfone subsidiary and AT&T; Corp.'s wireless subsidiary each charge a $2.99 fee to connect a call and then $3.28 per minute for domestic calls.

Calls on a cell phone typically cost about 10 cents a minute.

Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr., Tennessee Republican, said consumers suspect they can't use their own cell phones because airlines want them to use in-plane phones.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, railed against airlines for failing to upgrade the in-plane phone service and for charging too much to place calls.

"Airfone stinks … and it is unbelievably expensive," Mr. DeFazio said.

Mr. Duncan said solving the problem by either improving current in-plane phones or by finding a way to let passengers use cell phones safely during flight will reduce air rage.

While 43 percent of air rage was caused by passengers using alcohol, 15 percent was caused by flight attendants telling passengers they must turn off their cell phone or other electronic device, Mr. Duncan said.

That made it the second-leading cause of air rage, he said.

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