The truth about your laptop computer

and landing safely

part One



By David Higgins and Joel Gibson
September 15, 2003


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Next time you're on a flight and the plane suddenly begins to climb or pitch to the left, don't panic. It's probably just the kid next to you conquering level 16 on his computer game.

Pilots have become accustomed to unexpected problems caused by passengers using mobile phones or other portable electronic devices.

Over the past decade there have been more than 100 incidents in Australia

 of navigation system failures, autopilot malfunctions, interference with radio transmissions, incorrect readings from flight management computers and false alerts from engine warning systems - all due to portable devices.

In one case last year, the ground proximity warning system in a 34-seater plane suddenly went berserk even though the plane - which was just 22 kilometres south-west of Sydney - had levelled off at 5000 feet.

The pilot noticed a mobile phone interference signal in his headphones, according to an incident report lodged with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. "The aircraft continued to its destination without further incident," the log entry says.

  30 JUN 2000 United and American Airlines are inspecting power outlets for laptop computers following wrong installation of the wiring and an inflight overheating incident resp. (AP)

On another occasion in 1996, a Boeing 767 pitched and dropped 120 metres before pilots recovered control. A passenger using an electronic dictionary was asked to turn it off, and the plane's systems returned to normal.

On more than one occasion, laptop computers have been blamed for changing an aircraft's internal cabin pressure.

Pilots routinely ask for portable devices to be switched off during take-off and landing. because they are too busy to deal with problems with interference. But, once in the air, when passengers are allowed to switch devices on, pilots have had to contend with a range of bewildering malfunctions.

The incidents, logged in an Australian Transport Safety Bureau database, have been collated for the first time and detailed in the latest edition of Flight Safety Australia, published by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Perhaps most worrying of all, the devices often cause autopilot malfunctions, which have resulted in planes climbing, oscillating, or disengaging from the autopilot system altogether.

CASA wants to ban the use of mobile phones on all flights and prohibit the use of laptop computers, video cameras and electronic games during take-offs and landings.

CASA spokesman Peter Gibson said the level of interference was manageable but any increase would require more serious consideration. "None of these [incidents] led to anything life-threatening . . . but we have this issue constantly under review," he said. "The thing we're relying on at the moment is the common sense of passengers not to use mobiles, transmitters and other devices when they're told not to, and the vigilance of the cabin crew."

Laurie Cox, a spokesman for the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, said more research was needed into the effect of electronic devices.

"You've got to ask, do you want to get there, or do you want to use your laptop?"

Mobiles ring travel warning
Ian Gerard
SEPTEMBER 15, 2003

IT'S official: mobile phones and other electronic devices can significantly interfere with a plane's navigational equipment.
That's the finding of the first comprehensive study of such use, carried out by the British Civil Aviation Authority, and it has prompted a fresh warning to Australian airlines and passengers that using a mobile during take-off or landing can be disastrous.

It is a Civil Aviation Safety Authority requirement that airlines ban the use of mobile phones and other equipment such as lap-top computers during flights, but some passengers continue to use them.

Interference from portable electronic devices or mobile phones has resulted in more than 100 air safety incidents in the past 10 years, according to the Australian Air Transport Safety Bureau.

In one incident last year, pilots on a NSW flight became concerned when the plane started rocking slightly from side to side while under the control of the autopilot.

Cabin crew found a passenger was using a lap-top computer and when it was turned off all problems stopped.

The British study, which involved using mobile phones on passenger-less flights, found that electrical equipment could cause compass freeze, navigation instrument errors, communication interference and false warning reports.

Cabin crew have the power to make passengers turn their electronic equipment off, confiscate it or have them charged with endangering the safety of an aircraft if they refuse to comply.

CASA spokesman Peter Gibson said most incidents were a result of passengers simply forgetting their mobiles were turned on.

"It's a manageable problem but it does show that the potential for something to go seriously wrong does exist and it's just not a request for some spurious reason," Mr Gibson said.

"Using them during take-off or landing is a concern because that's a time when the pilots are really busy and relying on their equipment."

Virgin Blue spokesman David Hutton said the overwhelming majority of passengers co-operated with instructions to turn off their mobile phones or hand-held computers.

"We do our utmost to make sure, both through announcements and doing a final check of the cabin to make sure that nobody is using their mobile telephones on the aircraft," he said.

"They emit a signal, as anyone who has their car radio on would know, that it's not only important that people are not talking on the phone but they are actually switched off."

Modified laptops could bring down airliners: report

September 12 2002

Efforts to tighten airline security in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks have failed to close a glaring loophole posed by laptop computers and other gadgets, New Scientist reports.

Anyone with "a basic knowledge of electronics" could modify a laptop's circuitry so that it can send out electromagnetic signals to disrupt the aircraft's guidance systems, the British weekly says.

One potential target for interference would be the plane's "glide slope" system, which calculates the angle of descent and helps the pilot land smoothly, the report, published in Saturday's issue, says.

The navigational zapper could also be built into a radio, tape recorder, CD player or handheld computer organiser.

The weapon would be virtually invisible. It could easily thwart a baggage security check for it would require a trained electronic engineer to spot whether circuitry has been altered or substituted.

And if a terrorist used this innocent-looking arm, the pilot would probably never even know.

Even though it has been known for years that mobile phones and laptops can emit low-level interference, no airline monitors for such radio emissions during flight.

Instead, pilots rely on passengers to turn off their devices, especially during critical moments such as takeoff and landing.

In 1996, according to New Scientist, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funded a feasibility study into ways of detecting interfering signals inside aircraft cabins.

A Massachusetts company, Megawave Corp, was hired to develop a system that scans for a broad range of radio emissions inside the cabin, via sensors mounted above each passenger seat.

Megawave's device was successfully tested, but the FAA took the project no further.

Chet Uber, a technology expert at Security Posture in Omaha, Nebraska, told New Scientist that the FAA pulled the plug on the scheme because "they've given commerce a higher priority than safety.

"This is a clear threat that has not been taken seriously enough."

No electronic gadget, he says, should be allowed inside a commercial aircraft unless the airline is sure that it is safe.

Part Two


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