Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Many fliers refuse to turn off electronic gadgets

By Gary Stoller, USA TODAYUpdated 1h 37m ago

Gadget-dependent fliers are turning a deaf ear to flight attendants' instructions to turn off their devices during takeoff and landing, despite decades of government warnings, a USA TODAY investigation shows.

Investigation finds many passengers ignore the flight attendants' instructions to turn off electronic devices for takeoff and landing.

Investigation finds many passengers ignore the flight attendants' instructions to turn off electronic devices for takeoff and landing.

The investigation, which reviewed thousands of pages of technical documents and surveyed hundreds of frequent fliers, also confirms that the worry about electronics on planes is not baseless: The devices emit radio signals that can interfere with cockpit instruments and flight systems.

"We really need to get the technical findings out to the public and tell them it's dangerous to use their portable electronic devices in-flight," says Bill Strauss, an electrical engineer whose doctoral thesis at Carnegie Mellon University studied use of electronic devices in-flight.

Documents reviewed by USA TODAY include: more than 25 papers by electronics experts; presentations, papers and advisories by government aviation officials in the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom and Europe; congressional testimony; and Boeing research and information for airlines. The investigation also included: a review of government accident reports and airline pilots' incident reports; a survey of more than 900 frequent fliers; and interviews with Boeing, NASA and independent electromagnetic interference (EMI) experts, flight attendants and pilots unions, and college electrical engineering professors.

Fortunately for air travelers, the probability of EMI is small, the technical papers say.

EMI has not been cited as the cause of any fatal U.S. airline accident, but pilots have reported incidents in which they suspected EMI caused cockpit instruments to go haywire.

Some electronics experts — including Douglas Hughes, an electrical engineer who worked for McDonnell Douglas and the Department of Defense— suspect it might have caused military aircraft accidents and been an undetected factor in some airline crashes.

Goverment accident investigators in New Zealand said a pilot used a cellphone in the cockpit before he and seven passengers were killed on a charter flight in 2003.

The New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission said the accident was probably caused by the pilot becoming distracted from monitoring altitude during landing. They noted in the accident report that cellphone use can cause "random interference to the proper functioning of aircraft avionics such as navigation equipment and autopilots."

Two recent events have caused frequent fliers to question why they're required to shut off their devices in flight.

On Dec. 6, actor Alec Baldwin was removed from an American Airlines plane for playing a game on his cellphone after a flight attendant told him to turn it off. On Dec. 1, the FAA gave approval to American's pilots — after months of tests — to use electronic tablets in cockpits.

American's pilots can use their own iPads any time during a flight to access aircraft and flight crew operating manuals and navigational charts, says the airline's spokeswoman, Andrea Huguely. The device's Wi-Fi must be turned off.

Pilots' iPad use "involves a significantly different scenario for potential interference than unlimited passenger use, which could involve dozens or even hundreds of devices at the same time," the FAA says.

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