Lawmakers, others object to mobile calls on aircraft

Concerns range from safety issues to passenger annoyance

WASHINGTON - Three U.S. government agencies raised safety concerns Thursday about efforts to allow mobile phone calls on airplanes inflight, with law enforcement officials saying high-power mobile systems could allow terrorists to better coordinate their efforts with cohorts on the ground.

Representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told a House of Representatives subcommittee that wireless systems now being tested by two airlines could give terrorists a reliable link to friends on the ground, and mobile phones could be used by terrorists to remotely set off bombs on airplanes.

"There are some who would use this technology for criminal and sometimes lethal purposes," said Laura Parsky, deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ's Criminal Division.

The DOJ, however, did not recommend that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) halt its current inquiry into mobile phone use on airplanes. Instead, the DOJ recommended several safety mechanisms if mobile phones are allowed on airplanes, including the ability to get wiretaps for mobile calls of suspicious passengers and the ability for a flight crew to shut off all mobile phone calls at once.

A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official also told the House Committee on Transportation's Subcommittee on Aviation that his agency remains concerned about mobile phones interfering with aircraft navigation and other electronic systems.

One committee member questioned safety concerns raised by the FAA and DOJ. Although mobile phones are accidentally left on during potentially dozens of U.S. flights each day, no U.S. aircraft has ever found interference from phones, said Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican.

Poe also questioned the DOJ's objections related to terrorism. "What makes us think that some outlaw who's on a plane who wants to use a computer or phone to set [a bomb] off is going to turn it off because someone tells him to?" he said. "They're going to go down to the lavatory and do what they want to do."

Parsky agreed that passengers could easily turn on mobile phones without the air crew noticing, but she also noted that mobile phone coverage is currently limited on airplanes. "Today, you might not be able to [go] into a lavatory and get a reliable connection," she said. "If some of these new technologies are put in place, that could be done more reliably."

While the FAA and DOJ raised safety concerns, most of the subcommittee's members raised objections to mobile phone calls during flights based on the potential nuisance to other passengers.

Airline passengers, already stressed from heavy security, late flights and lost baggage, wouldn't have the option of walking away from a person engaging in a loud mobile call, said Representative John Mica, subcommittee chairman. "The last thing most air passengers want is to be forced to listen to their neighbor chat on the cell phone about their ailments, their dating problems, the latest reality TV show, or an up-to-the-minute estimate of time of arrival for the duration of their flight," said Mica, a Florida Republican.

Subcommittee members complained that airplane passengers can already be loud or obnoxious, without mobile phones to aid them.

"If you're on an airplane, it's very annoying when you have a chatterbox sitting next to you, or a small child," said Representative Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican. "I can't imagine somebody sitting next to me talking in Arabic or some other foreign language on a cell phone for an hour-and-a-half flight." Westmoreland didn't explain why someone talking in another language would be more annoying to him than someone talking in English.

Part of the FCC's inquiry, launched in December, attempts to determine whether past concerns about mobile phone use in the air interfering with ground-based mobile systems could be resolved. The FAA is working with the nonprofit RTCA, a private group that solicits consensus on airline communications issues, to determine whether concerns about interference with aviation communications systems can be fixed, said David Watrous, RTCA president.

Even if the FCC approves mobile phone use on flights, the FAA will require that airlines approve specific devices, including models of mobile phones, for use on each model of airplane where they will be used, said Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety. Even if mobile phone use is approved by federal agencies, many airlines may decide to continue the ban on in-flight mobile phone calls, because of compliance or consumer concerns, he said.

It would be a "nightmare" for airline workers to check each passenger's mobile device to see if it was on the approved list, said subcommittee member Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat. DeFazio also noted it would be nearly impossible for airline workers to recognize damaged or modified mobile phones that are transmitting improperly. The subcommittee has heard past testimony from a university researcher that damaged mobile phone signals could cause greater interference with aircraft instrumentation.

In addition to unresolved questions about the effect of mobile phones on airplane instrumentation, Sabatini said the FAA has concerns about passenger "air rage."

"It's not hard to imagine a scenario where use of cell phones by several passengers in the confined space of an aircraft cabin could lead to conflicts," he said. "We are concerned that, should cell phone use be permitted, flight attendants might be distracted from their critical safety duties and responsibilities if they are increasingly required to deal with irate passengers."

Despite concerns from the FAA, DOJ and lawmakers, representatives of mobile chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. and the Association of Corporate Travel Executives called for the U.S. government to approve mobile phone calls on flights. The association suggested mobile phone users on aircraft should use headsets, and it asked that passengers be allowed to check e-mail and use text-messaging functions on mobile phones if voice calls aren't allowed.

Qualcomm, with American Airlines, has tested a mobile phone system using low-powered pico cells to improve mobile signals and found no interference with airplane instrumentation, said Paul Guckian, Qualcomm’s senior director of technology.

Verizon Communications is also testing an aircraft Wi-Fi system with United Air Lines. Passengers could potentially use voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phones to make phone calls using an aircraft Wi-Fi system.


Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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