Airlines split on whether iPhones pose in-flight danger

delta airlines installing charging stations

If you thought the question over in-flight electronics was settled, think again. Although the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to announce in July whether to relax current rules governing in-flight use of iPhones, iPads and other devices, questions remain about their safety.

Wednesday, Bloomberg recounted testimony from pilots and others calling into question whether some devices – particularly those using cellular connections – may interfere with newer GPS-based navigation. In one instance, pilots believe an iPhone caused their airliner to fly miles off course…

“The timing of the cellphone being turned off coincided with the moment where our heading problem was solved,” an unidentified regional airline co-pilot informed NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System concerning the 2011 incident, Bloomberg reports.

In a December survey by the consumer electronics trade group CEA, 30 percent of passengers said they left their devices on during a flight by accident.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski agrees with the group that wireless technology is changing and rules should be changed. However, two U.S. airlines are split on whether to encourage greater use of in-flight electronics. United Continental believes changes could push enforcement of any new rules onto already busy flight attendants.

Although Delta Air Lines supports updating the regulations on inflight electronics, the company “reported 27 suspected incidents of passenger electronics causing aircraft malfunctions from 2010 to 2012,” according to Bloomberg. Devices which use cellular connections were singled-out by government investigators as posing the most risk to flight safety.

Unlike Wi-Fi connections, which are low-powered, cellular connections use more powerful signals to seek out long-distance ground stations. Airlines such as Delta and Alaska Air allow pilots to use tablets in the cabin, but limit the iPads to Wi-Fi, the report notes.

Current FAA rules ban most electronics use below 10,000 feet. Above that point, devices must be used in so-calledĀ airplane mode, which cuts radio signal transmission.

Lab tests by NASA, Boeing and the UK’s FAA equivalent found some devices emit radio signals able to interfere with in-flight avionics. One Samsung device in 2004 “was powerful enough to blot out global-positioning satellites,” Bloomberg reports.

There is growing concern about electronic devices impacting airline GPS equipment. Use of the satellite-navigation technology is growing as passenger airlines fly closer together to save fuel costs.

In a indication of how we may see loosing of in-flight Wi-Fi versus cellular, the FCC has approved a number of air-to-ground Wi-Fi providers, most recently Qualcomm.