may be banned from using their laptops on airliners
after tests showed that the latest wireless technology
interferes with safety systems.
The Civil Aviation Authority, Britain’s air safety
regulator, said that portable electronic devices
such as laptops and personal organisers might
have to be prohibited because of the risks posed
by ultra wideband (UWB).
Tests on Boeing 737 and 747 aircraft by Nasa
and United Airlines in California found that UWB
devices “knocked out” the collision-avoidance
system, which warns the pilot of converging aircraft,
and the instrument landing system that guides
aircraft to runways in bad weather. UWB may also
interfere with air traffic control systems that
rely on satellite signals.
A ban on laptops would have severe implications
for the business travel market. British Airways
said yesterday that 75 per cent of its business
travellers carried them. The airline is introducing
a new service in February allowing passengers
to use their laptops to access their workplace
computer systems and use e-mail and the internet
“It is very important for these customers to
have the choice of using a laptop during a long
flight,” a BA spokeswoman said. “They may need
to work on a presentation or catch up with e-mails.”
The Civil Aviation Authority said that the Nasa
research was not conclusive and might have exaggerated
the impact of UWB by boosting the power of the
devices during the tests. However, a spokesman
said that either the European Joint Aviation Authorities
or the US Federal Aviation Administration needed
to do more safety tests to check how vulnerable
aircraft systems were to UWB.
“If we obtained evidence that these devices posed
a risk then we could ban them from being carried
on board an aircraft. We will not allow aircraft
to be endangered and there will have to be further
research,” the Civil Aviation Authority spokesman
Existing laptops without UWB would also have
to be banned because it would be very difficult
to tell them apart. “The average cabin crew member
does not have a degree in IT and won’t be able
to judge whether a device has ultra wideband,”
UWB, which was developed by the military 30 years
ago, allows large amounts of data to be sent short
distances across a broad swath of the radio spectrum.
Laptops will be able to use it to link up over
short distances without cables.
It was approved for commercial development by
the US telecoms regulator in February and the
first devices using it could appear by the end
of next year. Intel is considering incorporating
UWB technology in its chips.
Passengers are already
banned from using mobile phones at any time
on an aircraft after research showed that they
interfered with communication and navigation systems.
Laptops, CD and DVD players and electronic toys
such as Gameboy must be switched off during take-off
and landing because of anecdotal evidence that
they cause low-level interference.
James Miller, United Airlines’ flight operations
technology manager, called on federal regulators
to reconsider their approval of UWB.
He told Aviation Week magazine: “Aviation
is not against the promise of any new technology
such as UWB. We insist, however, that any such
technology meets the most stringent requirements
for aviation safety.”