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U.K. will allow plane-safe cell phones to operate in flight with airline's OK

Airline workers could be tasked with a new set of responsibilities as wireless industry advancements make it possible to safely use portable electronic devices like cell phones while in flight.

Several wireless devices now offer “plane safe” or “flight” modes that allow radio transmitters to be switched off, which would prohibit the device from interfering with the plane’s radar, potentially allowing travelers to access calendars, games and other content from cell phones while in flight.

All this could add up to confusion for flight crews, with regulators like the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority saying it is up to individual aircraft operators to determine which devices can and cannot be used onboard their aircraft.

Today the CAA labels PEDs as either intentionally transmitting devices, which transmit radio signals, or unintentionally transmitting devices, which emit radio signals as a by-product. The use of unintentionally transmitting devices has typically been allowed during non-critical phases of flight.

Examples of intentionally transmitting PEDs include cell phones, personal computer equipment with embedded or plug-in networking capabilities, two-way pagers, satellite phones and two-way radios. Unintentionally transmitting PEDs include personal computing equipment without embedded or plug-in networking capabilities, cameras, radio receivers, media players, electronic games and implanted medical equipment.

A cell phone switched to “safe” mode could be included in the unintentionally transmitting category and therefore could be used during non-critical phases of flight. But allowing such devices to be used likely will entail additional responsibilities for flight crews.

The CAA notes that crews must be able to distinguish whether a device is operating in “safe” mode and whether that mode is actually preventing the device from transmitting. “Phone signal detectors, either portable or installed in the aircraft, have the potential to assist the cabin crew in detection of device transmissions or operation of non-permitted devices and enable appropriate followup action,” according to a policy note from the group.

The Federal Communications Commission, with support from the Federal Aviation Administration, has banned the use of cell phones, along with radios and televisions, while in flight “because its signals could interfere with critical aircraft instruments,” according to the FAA’s Web site.

Other PEDs, including laptop computers, handheld computer games and tape or CD players, which would qualify as unintentionally transmitting under the CAA’s definition, can be used above 10,000 feet. The restricted use of such devices, also recommended by the CAA, is also due to concerns they could interfere with aircraft instrumentation.

A spokesperson from the FAA said that a non-transmitting cell phone, like one switched to an “in-flight” mode, would likely be classified in the same category as other non-transmitting devices that can be used during flight. He noted, however, that any regulation regarding such devices would depend on FCC definitions.

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