Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Handhelds on Airplanes a Bigger Problem Than You Think


So what would you think if you were the B777 pilot who's radio communication with air traffic control was interrupted by a passenger's cell phone call?  Or if you were the captain in command of a B747 that unexpectedly lost autopilot after takeoff and did not get it back until 4, count 'em four passengers turned off their portable electronic devices? 

Well I'm guessing that these pilots would probably be leading the chorus of voices calling for some drastic change in the practically unenforced policy restricting the use of portable electronic devices on airplanes.

 Now I am reporting that the problem of electro-magnetic interference affecting commercial flights is much bigger than previously suspected. I have in my possession a new confidential report from the International Air Transport Association's safety data sharing program (STEADS) that shows over the past seven years, airlines around the world reported seventy five events in which portable electronic devices (let's just call them PEDs, okay?) are suspected of interfering with flight deck equipment. While phones were the source of interference in 40% of the reports, iPods, other MP3 players, laptops and portable games were also implicated. 

What kind of problems?  I'm not sure you want to know. All cockpit systems were affected, flight controls, communication, navigation and emergency warnings.  No less an authority than Boeing's David Carson is leading the charge that passengers, airlines and regulators need to take seriously the risks of using electronic devices during critical phases of flight. "There are circumstances in which it can cause interference," he told me in January, explaining that he and others who have studied the issue for the FAA felt that it was important to "reduce the risk of something causing interference at a time when it would be part of a causal path to an incident."

Technical folks start throwing expressions like "causal path" around at the risk of seeing other folks' eyes glaze over. But in this case that would be the wrong response. Let me translate what the dear engineer is saying.  

The use of PEDs on board will not - I repeat - will not cause a plane to go tumbling through the sky like something in a made-for-TV-disaster movie. What PEDs can and in fact have already done, is create a distraction for the flight crew. When that distraction comes at the wrong time it can lead to pants-wetting episodes and maybe even disaster. And that is why boys and girls, devices are supposed to be turned off as in OFF, below 10 thousand feet. The concept is that with sufficient altitude below us there is time to address any pesky error messages that might wind up being transmitted to the cockpit. Only now we know that those messages are pretty darn common.

In my story on this subject for The New York Times, in January, I reported ten pilot accounts in the NASA anonymous reporting system in the United States over the past 10 years. Its not inclusive, I know, but its the best I could get. Airlines keep that kind of data quiet for lots of reasons, most of them obvious. But that is why, when IATA showed a much higher number of events over a shorter period of time, I was flabbergasted. I called Steve Lott, the always-helpful spokesman for IATA in Washington and asked him just how big of problem this could be. 

"Steve," I asked, "since STEADS takes reports from only a quarter of the world's airlines, can we assume that 75 interference events is just a quarter of what might actually be happening on passenger carrying flights?"  Because if my math is correct that would mean there could be as many as 300 events since 2003. Christine, he told me "it is the minimum, not the maximum."

The IATA report is not public, someone slipped it to me after my Times story ran to much controversy in January. Nevertheless - and this is why he is such a good media relations guy - Steve did explain the purpose of the report and what might happen next. 

"Our goal is to communicate this back to the members and say, 'You are not the only ones who have experienced this.' It is important that we should flag this for regulators around the world to show that this is a problem."

Regulators, schmegulators, they could take forever to act.  In the meantime, is it unreasonable for a woman who spends a heck of a lot of time in airplanes to ask her fellow travelers, please, Please, PLEASE, cool it with the electronics below ten-thousand feet?



Anonymous said...

In the 90's, the good old days when not all people were suspected to be terrorists and cockpit visits were common, a colleague of mine told me that when a visitor wanted to take a video in the cockpit, the screens went blank just when he pushed the record button. It was a reproducable problem caused by the camera!
This was extreme incident and I guess on most flights today there is at least one mobile phone turned on but it might produce, depending on the location and depending on interferences between several devices unwanted effects in the cockpit. So leave that stuff turned OFF and you are on the "safe side".

Christine Negroni said...

Anonymous, I want to add that most experts in this field say this is a problem on older aircraft, more than newer ones because of advances in shielding wiring from EMI. Your dramatic story, placed so firmly in the nineties, seems to speak to that point and many others. Thanks for sharing it with us. Christine

Anonymous said...

"Seems to effect," "might effect," "risk..." what studies can be shared that there is a direct effect? There could be a specific model of phone or brand of equipment that is causing this problem. I doubt that only 75 flights a year have people on board who didn't turn off their equipment. Why were these flights affected enough to report and others were not? Where are the experts (NASA) to find out EXACTLY what is going on? Blanket policies to regulate the unknown aren"t effective. Find the exact source of thje problem, and post it on the equipment that is causing all the problems (warning label).

Christine Negroni said...

Well some airplanes are better shielded than others. Some devices are being used in areas of the airplane in closer proximity to systems than others. Finding out "exactly what is going on" is easier said than done, given the elusive nature of EMI. Finally, see today's story by Mary Kirby in Flight Global

Anonymous said...

Boeing performed extensive tests as reported in AeroMagazine's Interference from Electronic Devices[2] in response to reports by flight crews of anomalies that they believed to be caused by electronic devices. The flight crews had apparently confirmed the effect by switching the "suspect" devices on and off and watching the effects. Despite this and despite the fact that Boeing in many cases was able to purchase the actual offending device from the passenger and use it in extensive testing Boeing was never able to reproduce any of the anomalies. The report concludes:

As a result of these and other investigations, Boeing has not been able to find a definite correlation between PEDs and the associated reported airplane anomalies.

John said...

Re: "Seems to effect," "might effect," "risk..."

The EMI landscape changes daily because thousands of people bring in different mixes of devices that may on a given day cause an EMI event. Evan the same device, after say being dropped on the floor while retrieving your luggage at the claim area and cracking the case, could begin to radiate enough EMI to cause a problem on your return trip.

No, we can not "Find the exact source of thje (sic) problem..." so being a "fail-safe" industry, we take a "prove it to be safe" attitude, not a "demonstrate a repeatable problem" attitude.

As Christine suggests; just turn the dang things off when you are told to and smile since you have now contributed to the safety of your flight.

John; A forty-year veteran "tin-kicking" air safety professional.

Anonymous said...

As a pilot at a few airlines, I've flown late model aircraft--both Boeing and Embraer. I've never seen anything with the instrumentation that one could confidently attribute to cellphone use. But, I can confirm that there is at least interference with the communications gear.

Have you ever placed your cellphone next to your clock-radio on your nightstand (or some other device with a speaker), and it begins to make humming noises--even if it's turned off? That's what I've heard on my headset as a result of cellphone use.

Anonymous said...

I don't buy it. Why is there no interference at cruise when everyone has their PEDs on? Airlines are now flying around with iPads used as electronic flight bags that remain on the entire flight. Alaska, Pinnacle and multiple other airlines are moving to an all electronic flight bag and are getting FAA approval. These iPads contain both wifi and 3G wireless connections and they are right up front in the cockpit where most of the electronics of the plane are located. I think this is blown way out of proportion. If it is really a problem we will find out soon, there will be thousands of airliners flying around with iPad type devices by this time next year.

Bugdriver said...

To Anonymous
I believe it is recommended that the 3G and WIFI are turned off while the iPad is in the cockpit.

And I want devices stowed below 10,000 feet because if there is an incident involving turbulence or some runway mishap (rare, but happens), I don't want the device flying through the air and hitting me in the head thus leaving me unable to exit if I am unconscious. There is no second chance to escape in an emergency.

Greg, frequent flyer and commercial Heli Pilot.

Anonymous said...

This report is utter BS. The mythbusters disproved this crap years ago. Keep em on and screw the man

Anonymous said...

Turning your PED off is the same as fastening your seat belt. In the event of an emergency you definitely want to be wearing that belt. Likewise, you do not want to cause an emergency by using a PED. Wouldn't you rather reach your destination in one piece after a nice uneventful flight than end up in a liferaft in the middle of the pacific (or worse die in the ditching) wondering if your PED caused this catastrophe? Just turn it off and buckle up.

Anonymous said...

Electronic interference is *not* the only reason the flight crew wants all PEDs turned off below 10,000 feet. Takeoff and landing are the statistically most dangerous parts of any flight, and passengers paying attention to the situation - and to the cabin crew - could literally save their lives, and those of multiple others. So shut the damn things off and suck it up.

Anonymous said...

The only thing You have from cell phones is a rumbling noise if the phone is close to the pilot copilot , I never heard other problems, neither from airline captains or any other pilots ... so this is creating fear without reason ...

Unknown said...

Current aircraft have been shielded because of the newer inflight entertainment systems and WiFi. What is missing is that maintenance has been performed by numerous parties on these aircraft. Not all are in the USA and aircraft move from airline to airline. The maintenance records will not reflect that a wire was used 15 years ago that may not be shielded that way it would be today. See 14 CFR part 26 which only stops the current practice but has almost no ability to see into the past when aircraft may not have even been on a USA registry. Shut the phone off and live without the electric leash for the takeoff and landing.