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Unsafe at Any Airspeed?
April 1, 2006

Is it safe to use cellphones on airplanes? Phones, PDAs, laptops, DVD players, and game machines all emit radiation and have the potential to interfere with aircraft instrumentation. Yet, in December 2004, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began soliciting comments on proposed regulations that would allow airline passengers to use cellphones during flight. What’s more, many passengers do not believe that using portable electronic devices presents a risk to their safety.

So, over the course of three months in late 2003, a team of four electrical engineers tested the spectral environment on 37 different commercial flights over the northeast United States. What they found was disturbing. Passengers are using cellphones, on the average, at least once per flight, contrary to FCC and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) regulations, and sometimes during the especially critical flight phases of takeoff and landing. And their research found that phones and other portable devices can interrupt the normal operation of key cockpit instruments, especially Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, which are increasingly vital to safe landings.

Lead author Bill Strauss is an expert in aircraft electromagnetic compatibility at the Naval Air Warfare Center, and he recently completed his Ph.D. on the topic at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. The other three authors are electrical engineers and professors at CMU. Two of them, M. Granger Morgan and Daniel Stancil, are IEEE Fellows. Jay Apt is an active pilot and former NASA astronaut who flew on four shuttle missions.

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