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Safety Concerns Persist For Electronics Aloft

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Passengers and airlines have become too complacent about the use of electronic devices on board aircraft, according to an article in Tuesday's New York Times. One report filed by a pilot with NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System told of an incident in which the navigation equipment on a Boeing 737 failed after takeoff, but came back online after a flight attendant told a passenger to turn off a handheld GPS device. However, it wasn't clear how the GPS device might have had an effect, or if it was pure coincidence. The links may be difficult to prove, but engineer Bill Strauss told the Times the growing use of such devices aloft is "worrisome." They may be harmless much of the time, but a combination of rare events -- the kind of "accident chain" that causes many aviation accidents -- could have disastrous results.

For example, consider a hypothetical instance with an aging airplane, a cellphone or battery that's damaged or malfunctioning, and avionics that are more susceptible to interference because gaskets have failed. "And boom, that's where you get interference," Strauss said. "It would be a perfect storm that would combine to create an aviation accident." At least nine other ASRS reports in the last 10 years have cited possible safety issues due to use of consumer electronics, according to the Times. However, FAA spokesman Les Dorr told the Times there is "not enough evidence to warrant a change" in the current rules regarding the use of portable electronic devices. The FAA says (PDF) the aircraft operator or pilot-in-command may allow the devices if they have determined they don't affect the operation of onboard systems.

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