Do Electronic Devices Interfere with a Plane’s Systems? The Jury is Still Out

By Paul Riegler on 27 July 2016
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Most airline passengers today believe that their electronic devices – mobile phones, portable navigation systems, and tablets among others – are designed so they won’t create any interference with an aircraft’s flight systems. We – and some rocket scientists – beg to differ.

It turns out that the issue is not quite as clear-cut as it would appear. Earlier this year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which maintains the Aviation Safety Reporting System, a compilation of voluntarily submitted reports by pilots, flight attendants, air traffic controllers, and others, put together what it calls “a sampling of reports referencing passenger electronic devices incidents.”

The Aviation Safety Reporting System, according to NASA, is not only used to collect information but it is also used to identify deficiencies that need to be addressed and send alerts to those in a position to correct them. Its stated goal is to “lessen the likelihood of aviation accidents.”

Here are excerpts from some of the reports that may have you checking to make sure your device is in airplane mode the next time you fly.

[Editor’s note: actual report text has been edited for brevity and readability.]

1.)       Navigation Interference

CRJ200 first officer reports compass system malfunctioned during initial climb. When passengers were asked to verify that all electronic devices are turned off, the compass system returns to normal.

“The timing of the cell phone being turned off coincided with the moment where our heading problem was solved. Eight other flights in the same aircraft in two days span completed without a similar event.”

2.)       Boeing 737 near Newark Liberty – flight deck computer anomalies

Boeing 737 captain reported possible interference from cell phones in the cabin that could account for the electronic anomalies they were experiencing during the flight.

“Over the course of the entire flight, we experienced frequent and multiple ACARS interruptions with “ACARS NO COMM” messages. It’s possible that [they] were caused by interference, so I requested a PA to insure that all cell phones were switched off or in the airplane mode. After this announcement, there were no further issues.”

3.)       MD80 near Raleigh-Durham: Localizer fluctuations

MD80 captin experienced localizer oscillations during approach in VMC that he suspected may have been caused by an electronic device.

“After arrival at the gate I asked the flight attendants if they noticed passengers using cell phones and other electronic devices. They indicated many were. I believe that it is possible many passengers are not leaving their PED’s in airplane mode and this could contribute to the signal interruptions we were getting. A review of the aircraft maintenance log the following day showed no faults and ok for service. Now that regulations have changed with regard to portable electronic devices, I believe we are going to see an increase in these type events.”

4.)       CRJ200 on Taxi: Pilot headset interference

CRJ200 captain experienced interference in his Bose X headset, possibly caused by a cell phone.

“I do not receive interference inflight after 10,000 feet when the cell phone service can no longer find a source. Note, this Bose X does not receive power source from the aircraft, but provides its own battery pack for noise reduction operation. More study needs to happen to see about electrical interference before fully implementing passenger ‘open season’ on electrical gadgets.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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