- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2005

Lawmakers yesterday urged federal aviation officials to keep a ban in place preventing the use of cell phones on airplanes because it is not clear whether the devices interfere with navigation equipment.

“I don’t think anyone wants to take a chance that a plane goes down because some idiot is talking on a phone,” Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, said at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.

A Federal Aviation Administration official said the agency won’t lift its prohibition on the use of devices including cell phones, BlackBerry devices and two-way pagers, but passengers may be able to use them during flight one day.

The Federal Communications Commission, which also has jurisdiction over cell phone use, is considering relaxing a ban in place since 1991. If the FCC does ease restrictions, FAA Associate Administrator Nicholas Sabatini said his agency would allow passengers to use phones and other devices only if airlines prove they won’t interfere with aircraft equipment.

But short of a case-by-case exception, “the FAA is not changing its rules,” Mr. Sabatini said.

A federal advisory group is testing cell phones for the FAA to determine whether they can be used on planes without causing interference. It won’t make a recommendation until December 2006.

Electromagnetic waves from cell phone signals can cause interference with other electronic devices.

“Testing has shown the potential for cell phones to cause interference for avionics,” said David Watrous, president of RTCA Inc., a nonprofit group organized to examine aviation electronics issues for the FAA.

Phone manufacturers continue to try to eliminate interference, and the FCC says improvements in cell phone technology warrant at least a partial repeal. Consumers want an alternative to the expensive airphones that airlines introduced, but are disappearing from planes.

Qualcomm Inc. successfully tested a cell phone last year on an American Airlines flight. The carrier has said it may designate an area within a plane where passengers are allowed to place calls.

United Airlines said last month it received FAA approval to install equipment on planes to give passengers wireless Internet access, a development that hasn’t generated opposition.

Offering cell phone service, on the other hand, remains a contentious social issue as well as a technical issue and has phone companies, flight attendants and consumer groups weighing in. Even Cingular Wireless has said it opposes use of cell phones during flight.

“The last thing most air passengers want is to be forced to listen to their neighbor chat on their cell phone about their ailments, dating problems, the latest reality [television] show or up-to-the-minute time of arrival for their flight,” said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the aviation subcommittee.

But he expressed some skepticism that phones pose a risk to an aircraft’s equipment. Mr. Mica said he has forgotten to turn off his cell phone during flight, but seemingly it hasn’t caused problems.

“These planes aren’t dropping out of the sky because of my foolish mistake,” he said.

There is just one documented case of a cell phone causing interference. A Slovenian airline bound for Sarajevo in 2001 had its fire alarm warning go off, and the malfunction was traced to a cell phone, an FAA spokesman said.

If cell phones are allowed to be used on planes, the Justice Department wants authority to obtain fast wiretaps and must be able to disconnect calls between terrorists quickly, said Laura Parsky, deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division.

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