Soon-to-be-Released Report Could Permit Cell Phones to Fly

The 400-word Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics report does not advocate the use of cell phones on planes, but rather details what tests airlines should conduct to determine whether a plane is at risk of interference.


Airplanes are the next frontier for the wireless industry, and a new technical report could make it more likely that the U.S. government will rescind the cell phone ban on commercial flights.

This month, Dubai-based airline Emirates announced plans to become the world's first air carrier to allow passengers to make in-flight cell phone calls. The airline, which obtained approval from air safety and telecommunications regulators in 25 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, expects to allow usage on one of its Boeing 777s on a route early next month.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission ban in-flight cell phone calls on U.S.-registered aircraft or in U.S. airspace.

The FAA is worried that stray signals from the phones and other electronic devices could interfere with a plane's navigation and communications, while the FCC is concerned that midair cellular calls could wreak havoc with cell phone calls on the ground.

The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, a private organization that the FAA relies on for technical information, has finished a nearly four-year study of potential interference from in-air use of cell phones, Wi-Fi transmitters in laptops and other electronic devices.

The 400-page report, completed in December by a committee that includes a member from San Diego-based Qualcomm, tells airlines how to test for such interference, bringing the wireless industry closer to ensuring that cell phones are safe to use on planes.

Most commercial airlines offer phones built into seat backs that are specifically intended and approved for use in flight. But passengers complain about the high cost of those phones; calls can run as high as $10 a minute.

Some in the wireless industry think airline passengers would rather use their own cell phones and are exploring ways to make that happen, such as adding cellular antennas on airplanes. If personal cell phones were approved for use on planes, it is likely there would be an additional charge for in-flight calls.

The RTCA report does not advocate the use of cell phones on planes, but rather details what tests airlines should conduct to determine whether a plane is at risk of interference from cell phones or other electronic devices, said Dave Carson, co-chairman of the RTCA committee on portable electronic devices.

"If the airline says, `We're not sure if there's a concern,' then the report describes how you would go about doing a test that would show specifically if you have interference," said Carson, a Boeing engineer.

Carson said he thinks any potential interference issues can be solved.

The RTCA is a private, nonprofit corporation that serves as a federal advisory committee on communications, navigation, surveillance and other aviation systems.

The RTCA's portable electronic devices committee includes representatives from the airline and wireless industries, such as US Airways, Cingular Wireless, Northwest Airlines, Motorola and Qualcomm.

The FAA, which also has a representative on the committee, will review the final report and recommendations to determine how they might be applied, the agency said. The FAA has not received the final report, agency spokesman Ian Gregor said.

The committee is working on recommendations for commercial airplane manufacturers on how to limit or prevent interference from passengers' electronic devices. That report is expected to be completed by July, Carson said.

The RTCA's reports ultimately could lead to the FAA's allowing in-flight cell phone use. Still, an airline would have to show the agency that each make and model of aircraft is safe from interference, said Gregor said.

"Proving noninterference could be a big challenge for airlines," he said.

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