Amid the proliferation of Web connectivity for airline passengers, air-safety experts are examining growing pilot reliance on portable electronic devices in cockpits.
Most public and regulatory attention remains focused on whether controls should be loosened on computer use, tablets, cellphones and other Wi-Fi-enabled technology in the cabin, especially during taxi, takeoffs and landings. But some industry and government officials wonder if under extreme circumstances, there may be a different safety downside: Can pilots tapping away on similar devices as part of their jobs potentially interfere with aircraft systems?
U.S. avionics supplier Honeywell International Inc. HON -0.17%already has faced the challenges of such applications on the other side of the cockpit door. The Morris Township, N.J. company is in the later stages of helping airlines retrofit certain of its instrument displays installed on Boeing BA -0.32%737 jets to make the equipment more resistant to electromagnetic interference. The modifications were phased into new production of the same type of Honeywell displays last year, affecting thousands of aircraft.
There haven’t been any accidents or airborne incidents, and Federal Aviation Administration reviews haven’t prompted any mandatory fixes. At the same time, airlines around the world continue to dramatically expand Wi-Fi use by pilots, including everything from planning routes to accessing emergency checklists.
But during a ground test of some Wi-Fi technology more than two years ago, a number of Honeywell-built displays on a Boeing 737 flickered and blanked out briefly from a nearby power source simulating especially powerful Wi-Fi signals. Lasting only seconds, the outages nevertheless raised red flags among air-safety officials and spurred coverage by various industry publications. The initial answer was to post warning signs temporarily prohibiting pilots from turning on wireless devices in cockpits of planes equipped with the problematic displays.
Honeywell says that after discussions with experts at the FAA and plane maker Boeing Co., it responded further by developing enhanced shielding, upgraded software and other modifications to specific models of 737 displays.
Company spokesman Steve Brecken recently reiterated that the “isolated incident occurred more than two years ago,” involved test frequencies that went “way beyond” typical Wi-Fi signals, and “has never been reported since.” Last year, Honeywell urged airlines to voluntarily implement fixes.
In the past, Boeing acknowledged that some Honeywell displays temporarily malfunctioned during the ground tests. The FAA now says “the problem has been traced to a design issue” with internal circuitry on the 737 displays, adding that agency officials are still reviewing various versions of Wi-Fi systems “to determine if a safety issue exists.”
Electrical experts tend to support expanded Wi-Fi use in the cockpit, despite the fact that such devices are physically closer to critical instruments than those in the cabin. One reason, they say, is that the latest portable technology emits dramatically less-powerful signals than earlier versions.
Moreover, Wi-Fi devices distributed by airlines are less likely to be damaged or tampered with than passenger versions, reducing the likelihood of unpredictable or excessively strong signals, according to Philip Levis, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University.
The Honeywell case “demonstrates that testing can detect potential problems, and therefore establish that something is safe,” he said.
An FAA-advisory group in August is expected to recommend increased public education efforts focused on explaining safeguards for pilots using electronic devices, according to people familiar with the deliberations.
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