Cell Phones, Wi-Fi and Portable Electronics on Airplanes

There are still unknowns about the radio signals that portable electronic devices (PEDs) and cell phones give off; they may unintentionally affect aircraft communications, navigation, flight control and electronic equipment.

The final RTCA report said there is insufficient information to support a wholesale change in policies that restrict use of PEDs. But the group did publish thoroughly detailed processes by which operators and manufacturers can assess the risk of PED interference with aircraft systems, and similarly detailed guidelines for certification of such products, if it is requested from the FAA.

WiFi in the Sky

Over the last couple of years, airlines have responded to travelers’ requests for inflight Internet access by installing WiFi systems that passengers can access (for a fee) using their laptop computers, Blackberries and other devices with a WiFi chip.

For each model of aircraft a WiFi system is to be used on, a manufacturer must get FAA certification for the system, and the airline must get FAA operational approval. The approvals include testing to show the equipment performs its intended function and doesn’t interfere with any aircraft systems during all phases of flight. Typically, airborne WiFi equipment mimics its earthbound counterparts: routers, ethernet cables, access ports and other communications hardware, all permanently installed in the airplane.

While passengers are welcome to access the web, U.S. airlines offering WiFi service block the use of inflight calling using Skype or similar applications. This is not an FAA restriction; they are simply responding to the overwhelming majority of their customers, who prefer silent communications to the public nature of Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) calls.

For more information, see the FAA guidance on inflight PED use at: www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/advisory_circulars/index.cfm/go/document.information/documentID/22448.

We Recommend