Report: Evidence Mounts that Electronic Interference May Affect Airplane Safety

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In 75 instances between 2003 and 2009, electronic interference was cited as a possible cause of airplane dysfunction, according to a report by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Seasoned travelers, and even travelers who fly more than once or twice a year, sometimes find themselves jaded by the rules of the air: required safety demonstrations, buckle your seatbelt whenever you’re seated, and turn off electronic devices such as cell phones and smartphones. But the IATA report, obtained by ABC News, provides some evidence that heeding that last rule, about electronic devices, would be to everyone’s benefit.

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According to the confidential study, in a survey spanning six years with respondents from 125 airlines, there were 75 documented incidents in which airline pilots and crew believed that possible electronic interference affected flight controls and navigation systems. In 26 of those instances, autopilot, autothrust and landing gear were disturbed, while 13 of the incidents produced electronic warnings, including “engine indications.” In four out of ten of the events documented, the suspected cause was a cell phone.

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The report, according to ABC News, stresses that no direct correlation is being made between electronic interference from personal electronic devices and plane malfunctions. Instead it provides examples of narratives provided by airplane crew such as this:

“Auto pilot was engaged.”
At about 4500 ft, the autopilot disengaged by itself and the associated warnings/indications came on.
[Flight attendants] were immediately advised to look out for PAX [passengers] operating electronic devices.
… [Attendants] reported that there were 4 PAX operated electronic devices (1 handphone and 3 iPods).”

When the flight attendants made the passengers shut off those electronic devices, the flight continued without further incident. Other descriptions detail how “a clock spun backwards and a GPS in the cabin read incorrectly while two laptops were being used nearby.” And another flight altitude control readings increased rapidly before a flight attendant made an announcement for passengers to turn off any electronic devices. After the warning, the readings went back to normal.

Some experts argue that these anecdotes are not enough to draw conclusions about how electronic devices affect planes. They say that the problem of interference could be more apparent on older planes, which sometimes lack the proper internal shields that protect highly sensitive electronic sensors hidden in the plane’s passenger area. Boeing engineers working with ABC found that signals from electronic devices can, in fact, hit and disrupt these hidden sensors.

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