Skies may turn less friendly to electronic devices

April 11, 1993|By New York Times News Service

As passengers carry mooe and more electronic devices onto airplanes, the airlines and the government are debating measures to restrict their use for safety reasons.

While there is no known instance of a crash caused by a passenger's radio or other device, many pilots have reported that they believed their planes' controls had been impaired by interference from consumer electronics. Adding to the concerns is the increasing use of computerized controls on the planes themselves, which might make any possible interference more dangerous.

The existing federal rules date to the early 1960s, long before the laptop computer, the cellular phone and the digital game became as common as peanuts on airplanes.

Those rules forbid the use of battery-powered devices in flight, but excepted some items, including electric shavers, pacemakers, hearing aids, tape recorders and, in the biggest loophole of all, "any other portable electronic device that the operator of the aircraft has determined will not cause interference with the navigation or communications of the aircraft."

Under this system, computers, for instance, have not been prohibited, even though the cables attached to peripherals such as printers and disk drives could, according to technical experts who advise the government and the industry, act as antennas and broadcast unintended signals.

Northwest Airlines, for one, is not waiting for the government to make changes. Last month the airline announced it would prohibit passengers from using a wide variety of electronic devices, such as CD players and video games, during landings and takeoffs. Passengers would be free to use the devices when the plane is above 10,000 feet, because at higher altitudes minor disturbances to a plane's instruments would not pose significant risks.

But other airlines have different policies, and in an attempt to eliminate confusion and enhance enforcement, the airlines have jointly asked the Federal Aviation Administration to set a common standard, which would establish three classes of equipment:

* No restriction: Hearing aids, pace-makers and other implanted medical devices and electronic watches.

* Prohibited during takeoff, landing and when pilot deems necessary: Audio or video recorders, electronic games, calculators and computers without printers and disk drives.

* Prohibited at all times: Cellular phones, radio transmitters, remote control devices, FM radio receivers, television receivers and electric shavers.

The FAA's latest advisory circular on the subject, however, would leave most decisions up to the airlines, but it would require prohibiting the use of cellular phones -- which transmit especially strong signals -- on planes when they are taxiing before taking off and during the takeoff itself.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.