By David Higgins and Joel Gibson
September 15, 2003
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
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.
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
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
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
SEPTEMBER 15, 2003
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"This is a clear threat that has not been taken seriously
No electronic gadget, he says, should be allowed
inside a commercial aircraft unless the airline is sure that it is