It would be the perfect tabloid headline: portable video-game gadget causes dc-10 crash! It just wouldn't be the perfect truth.
With a flurry of recent reports in Time, USA Today, and other publications that hand-held electronic devices dangerously interfere with airplane navigation equipment, you'd think that Tetris games were regularly pitching jetliners into the Atlantic. Yet, even though devices such as portable video games, TV/VCR combos, and CD and tape players do emit electromagnetic signals that have the potential to affect communications and navigation gear, airline professionals say the likelihood of interference is virtually negligible and all the scare stories about in-flight hazards are just that.
However, the Federal Aviation Administration is concerned enough that it has asked RTCA, Inc. (formerly known as the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics), an independent, nonprofit advisory group, to launch a new investigation. One reason for scrutiny is reports from pilots of signal interference-the International Air Transport Association, for example, says it has received some 50 accounts in the past six months. Another is that a huge number of new devices, from Game Boys to portable VCRs, have flooded the market in the past few years so even though an RTCA report as recent as 1988 concluded that portable electronics weren't much of a threat to planes, the proliferation of tiny new entertainment gizmos increases the potential for trouble. And because cockpit electronics are smaller and lower in voltage than ever, they may be more vulnerable.
Of course, the airlines' own passenger-area electronic gadgets from microwave ovens to in-the-seat video screens emit their own signals, raising the suspicion that airlines are simply looking to decrease the competition so they can make travelers more interested in new products they're developing. (Nintendo is currently working with airlines to create in-flight video games.) But insiders don't seem to think there's a conspiracy afoot. For one thing, the FAA is not likely to ban personal electronics on planes. ''We don't think it's appropriate that airlines are passing a responsibility to government that has for years been something they individually had to determine,'' says Anthony J. Broderick, the FAA's associate administrator for regulation and certification.
RTCA expects to conclude its study sometime next year. David Watrous, its president, says the group's primary goal is to get enough information to separate hysteria from truth. ''People should not be alarmed,'' he says. ''But we simply don't have all the answers.'' In the meantime, all the major airlines will continue to allow passengers to use their Video Watchmen as long as they put them away during takeoff or landing. Which leaves yet another pressing question: Since airlines generally don't show plane-disaster movies, will they balk if you bring your own copy of Passenger 57 on board?