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Threat of portable electronics on planes is hazy area

| Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011

They might seem like silly rules — turn off cellphones and electronic devices during takeoff or landing of a plane. And, no cellphone use during the flight.

Those are the rules "30 Rock" star Alec Baldwin was accused of breaking when he was kicked off an American Airlines flight after refusing to power down. The actor vented on Twitter that he was berated by a flight attendant for playing a game while the plane sat at the gate not moving.

But why the fuss?

Decades ago, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission determined that electronic devices could send signals that would interfere with the equipment on an airplane, officials said. Therefore, electronic games, MP3 players and laptops have to be turned off until the plane gets above 10,000 feet.

Cellphones are not to be used for calls or Internet use on a cellular network anytime the plane is in the air, although they can be used in "airplane mode" for activities such as playing games or updating one's calendar.

Brent Bowen, the head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University, said there is little research to show whether personal electronic devices actually cause a problem. But that doesn't matter.

"It's a federal air regulation, and the crew is responsible for enforcing it," he says. "These rules apply to all airlines in America and all airlines operating in America."

FAA officials would not discuss the use of electronics on airplanes, but instead, sent a fact sheet explaining the rules.

According to their written explanation, there are too many unknowns about the radio signals that hand-held electronics and cellphones give off. At lower altitudes, any interference could be more of a safety hazard, because the pilot and cockpit crew need to focus on critical arrival and departure duties, the FAA said in its statement.

As for Wi-Fi systems available on some flights, manufacturers must obtain certification from the FAA showing they do not interfere with the plane's systems anytime during flight, the FAA said.

Bowen said there have not been enough studies to determine whether the ban on electronic devices during takeoff and landing should be relaxed, and further studies are unlikely, because of funding.

"Why should we spend millions of dollars in research when you can just cut it off for 10 minutes?" he says.

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