But the pilots who reported the problems seemed convinced, saying that when passengers were instructed to turn off electronic devices, the problem went away.
Better safe than sorry
The FAA, saying that personal electronics "could be potentially hazardous to aircraft communications and navigation," has largely handed over responsibility to the airlines. The airlines -- not the FAA -- are responsible for determining which electronic devices may be used on planes safely.
Airlines also are responsible for determining when devices can be used. Most airlines follow FAA guidance that devices be allowed when the airplane is above 10,000 feet, which gives pilots time to troubleshoot problems that arise. Airlines that want to allow devices below 10,000 feet must certify that the specific devices are safe.
The cell phone conundrum
Cell phones and laptops with wireless network capabilities -- devices that transmit signals -- fall into a category of their own when in transmit mode. Those transmissions are banned by both the FAA, because of potential airplane interference, and the Federal Communications Commission, because of potential interference with wireless networks on the ground.
And for that reason, the government industry committee reviewing portable electronic usage will not consider the airborne use of cell phones for voice communications during flight.
In the future, you're likely to see more and more cell phone and WiFi services offered on planes but only as part of airplane-based systems designed to handle the signals.
But when is a cell phone a cell phone? Many passengers just aren't sure.
"It remains a fact that passengers do not really know -- when turning their (smart phones) 'on' and 'off' onboard an aircraft -- if they activate WiFi only and/or cellular functions," Airbus wrote in its submission to the FAA.
And if passengers don't know how to operate the devices they own, can flight attendants be expected to understand the ones they don't?
The risk is growing, and shrinking
When the FAA first regulated electronic devices in 1966, regulators were concerned about FM radio interference. Today, travelers come equipped with smart phones and tablets, WiFi and e-readers, Bluetooth technology and noise-canceling headphones.
Meanwhile, planes have grown more sophisticated, too. In 1966, mechanical linkages connected the cockpit with the control surfaces; today, miles of wires do the trick. The potential for interference is growing.
But modern planes are also being built with portable electronics in mind. Newer aircraft are "hardened" against electromagnetic interference, "immunizing" them from problems.
Technology is creating a problem, and technology is solving the problem.
But the FAA must consider non-technical factors as well.
Will passenger use of electronic devices keep them from listening to safety briefings? Will laptop computers, if used during takeoffs and landings, become missiles if the plane encounters turbulence?
And what can airlines do to get compliance with new rules when the old rules are so routinely ignored?
During our return trip to Washington, we ask a fellow passenger whether she has turned off her phone. She has, she says, but only because of an unusually persistent crew, which made three warnings.
"Typically, (I will) always leave my phone on," she said.
"I don't think that having your cell phone on will actually interfere. And plus ... I do like to get my messages the second I land."
An unrelated traveler chimes in, saying she leaves her phone on airplane mode. "It's there, so I do," she explained.