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Tests show cell phone air safety risk

New study could stall plans for in-flight cellular service

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New tests show electronic equipment could interefere with plane navigation.

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(CNN) -- Just when you thought it was safe to switch on your cell phone, it seems that making calls in the air could pose a greater risk than running up an exorbitant bill.

A new study by scientists at the Carnegie Mellon University shows that interference caused by mobile phones may create more interference to aircraft navigation systems than previously thought.

If true, the findings -- which also reveal that many passengers are flouting current in-flight cell phone bans -- could call into question airline plans to wire jets to accommodate mobile networks.

The Carnegie study, carried out with support from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, showed that phones and other portable electronic devices such as laptops or games consoles can interfere with critical aircraft electronics.

"We found that the risk posed by these portable devices is higher than previously believed," said aircraft electronics expert Bill Strauss.

"These devices can disrupt normal operation of key cockpit instruments, especially Global Positioning Systems receivers, which are increasingly vital for safe landings," he said.

While standard airline safety warnings inform passengers they must keep their phones switched off during flights, this has long been dismissed as an unnecessary precaution.

Until now, the main logic behind the phone ban has been that high speed planes full of passengers making calls cause massive disruption to regionalized cellular networks as they sweep overhead.

Cynics have also accused the airline industry of implementing the ban to force passengers to make use of the costly satellite phones usually installed in modern aircraft.

The situation is set to change from December 2006, following revisions by U.S. federal regulators that will permit flights to carry onboard transmitters linking aircraft to satellites and allowing passengers to use mobile phones as normal.

But Granger Morgan, head of Carnegie's Engineering and Public Policy department, said the new study should prompt a rethink.

"We feel that passenger use of portable electronic devices on aircraft should continue to be limited for the safety of all concerned," he said.

Researchers using a special antenna that tracks radio emissions found that on average, one to four cell phone calls are made from every flight in the northeast United States.

Some of the calls were made during sensitive flight stages such as shortly after take-off or during the final approach, exposing aircraft to greater risk of accident, the researchers said.

The Carnegie tests are likely to be welcomed by many passengers opposed to the idea of introducing cell phone services on flights.

A recent CNN Business Traveller survey of more than 1,800 people showed that 82 percent objected to the idea.

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