Cellphones Pose Greater Risk to Airplanes Than Previously Thought

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A study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy (EPP) has found that cell phones and other portable electronic devices, like laptops and game-playing devices, can pose dangers to the normal operation of critical electronics on airplanes. The study will be featured in an article appearing in the March issue of IEEE Spectrum. The researchers found that on average one to four cell phone calls are typically made from every commercial flight in the northeast United States. Some of these calls are made during critical flight stages such as climb-out, or on final approach. This could cause accidents, the investigators report.

“We found that the risk posed by these portable devices is higher than previously believed,” said Bill Strauss, who recently completed his Ph.D. in EPP at Carnegie Mellon. “These devices can disrupt normal operation of key cockpit instruments, especially Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, which are increasingly vital for safe landings.” Strauss is an expert in aircraft electromagnetic compatibility at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Patuxent River, Md.


With support from the Federal Aviation Administration, three major airlines and the Transportation Security Agency, EPP researchers crisscrossed the northeast United States on commercial flights, monitoring radio emissions from passenger use of cell phones and other electronic devices. They tracked these radio emissions via a broadband antenna attached to a compact portable spectrum analyzer that fit into an innocuous carry-on bag.

“A laptop computer controlled the system and logged the data,” said Granger Morgan, head of the EPP Department. “While we looked primarily at wireless phones, we also discovered that emissions from other portable electronic devices were problematic.”

Both Strauss and Morgan, along with Carnegie Mellon researchers Jay Apt and Dan Stancil, recommend that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the FAA begin to coordinate electronic emission standards. At the moment, there is no formal coordination between the two federal agencies. The researchers also recommend routine monitoring of on-board radio emissions by flight data recorders and deploying specially designed tools for flight crews to monitor passenger use of electronic devices during final approach.

While the FCC recently suggested that it might be appropriate to allow passengers to use cell phones and other electronic devices on airplanes, Morgan disagrees.

“We feel that passenger use of portable electronic devices on aircraft should continue to be limited for the safety of all concerned,” Morgan said.