July 14, 2005, 4:26 PM — Three U.S. government agencies raised safety concerns Thursday about efforts to allow mobile phone calls on airplanes inflight, with law enforcement officials saying high-power mobile systems could allow terrorists to better coordinate their efforts with cohorts on the ground.
Representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told a House of Representatives subcommittee that wireless systems now being tested by two airlines could give terrorists a reliable link to friends on the ground, and mobile phones could be used by terrorists to remotely set off bombs on airplanes.
"There are some who would use this technology for criminal and sometimes lethal purposes," said Laura Parsky, deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ's Criminal Division.
The DOJ, however, did not recommend that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) halt its current inquiry into mobile phone use on airplanes. Instead, the DOJ recommended several safety mechanisms if mobile phones are allowed on airplanes, including the ability to get wiretaps for mobile calls of suspicious passengers and the ability for a flight crew to shut off all mobile phone calls at once.
A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official also told the House Committee on Transportation's Subcommittee on Aviation that his agency remains concerned about mobile phones interfering with aircraft navigation and other electronic systems.
One committee member questioned safety concerns raised by the FAA and DOJ. Although mobile phones are accidentally left on during potentially dozens of U.S. flights each day, no U.S. aircraft has ever found interference from phones, said Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican.
Poe also questioned the DOJ's objections related to terrorism. "What makes us think that some outlaw who's on a plane who wants to use a computer or phone to set [a bomb] off is going to turn it off because someone tells him to?" he said. "They're going to go down to the lavatory and do what they want to do."
Parsky agreed that passengers could easily turn on mobile phones without the air crew noticing, but she also noted that mobile phone coverage is currently limited on airplanes. "Today, you might not be able to into a lavatory and get a reliable connection," she said. "If some of these new technologies are put in place, that could be done more reliably."
While the FAA and DOJ raised safety concerns, most of the subcommittee's members raised objections to mobile phone calls during flights based on the potential nuisance to other passengers.