Tag Archives: Flights

Could your phone really cause a plane crash??

Can a phone cause a plane crash? They always ask us to turn off our phone or put it into airplane mode, but with technology advances in planes, is this still a concern? This post examines this question.

“We’re flying in a Lockheed Eagle series L1011. It came off the line 20 months ago. It carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?” – Toby Ziegler, West Wing

Can a phone cause a plane crash?

We’ve all heard the pre-landing announcement asking that we turn off electronic devices, and most of us have thought it sounded ridiculous (each time reminded me of the above rant from the West Wing pilot episode). Can a cell phone cause a plane crash?  A new airline industry report says perhaps there’s a possibility there’s something  to it. Yes, seriously.

The report

The International Air Transport Association studied survey responses from 125 airlines from 2003 to 2009.

  • They found “75 incidents of possible electronic interference. Airline pilots and other crew members believed these were linked to mobile phones and other electronic devices.”
  • More than a third of them (26) “affected the flight controls, including the autopilot, autothrust and landing gear.”
  • Another 17 hit navigation systems, with 15 affecting communication systems. It’s all according to an industry investigation shared by ABC News. Your iPhone just got that much more dangerous.

Scariest quotes from the report:

  • “Autopilot disengaged by itself”
  • “left GPS is not reading correctly”
  • “rapid changes in cabin altitude and altitude control”

Note – the report stresses that it is not verifying that the incidents were caused by cell phones, but it includes a sampling of the narratives provided by pilots and crewmembers who believed they were experiencing electronic interference.

I’m still skeptical, and so is ABC’s John Nance, a former Air Force and commercial pilot:

“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there, but it’s not evidence at all. It’s pilots, like myself, who thought they saw something but they couldn’t pin it to anything in particular. And those stories are not rampant enough, considering 32,000 flights a day over the U.S., to be convincing.”

Also, Boeing and Honeywell Aviation just released a statement about the March’11 report about Wi-Fi interference: Phase 3 Display Units used by pilots in Boeing 737 aircraft are susceptible to “blanking” in the presence of Wi-Fi equipment. Scary!

photo - plane crash
Can using your Iphone really cause THIS??

How serious is the wifi interference issue?

Alaska Airlines distributed iPads to its pilots to replace paper flight manuals, but they’re not permitting its pilots to use their new iPads to access the Internet in the cockpit after witnessing the Wi-Fi interference with Honeywell Phase 3 display units (also it’s an FAA rule). OK, but that’s still not cause for fear. The media’s big on scare tactics to get your attention but it sounds like it’s an issue with one specific module, and only at elevated power levels (not typical power levels).

Boeing says: “Current testing by Boeing and Honeywell has determined that blanking may occur when a DU is subjected to testing procedures specified by the FAA requirements (AC-20-164) during installations of Wi-Fi systems on the airplane.

Based on testing that has been conducted, Boeing and Honeywell have concluded that actual EMI levels experienced during normal operation of typical passenger Wi-Fi systems would not cause any blanking of the Phase 3 DU. This issue does not exist with the Phase 1 or 2 DU’s.”

Honeywell says that, during recent ground testing “at elevated power levels”, the company observed a momentary blanking on the ‘flat panel’ liquid crystal displays that it developed and pioneered for Boeing.

“The screens reappeared well within Boeing’s specified recovery time frame. The screens have not blanked in flight and are not a safety of flight issue. Honeywell is working to ensure the problem is addressed and fixed and that our technology will continue to exceed specifications,” says Honeywell.


Link to ABC’s story, and the earlier ZDnet story on wifi causing interference and potentially a plane crash is here, with the FlightGlobal (aviation blog) here.

West Wing episode transcript

Here’s the West Wing episode that I referenced at the top:

[approaches Toby] Sir, I need you to turn off your computer.

I need you to turn off your laptop, sir. It interferes with our navigational

You know when you guys say that, it sounds ridiculous to most people, right?

Mr. Ziegler? A message was just patched up to the cockpit for you. I'm not sure
I've got it right. POTUS in a bicycle accident?

[stops typing and looks up] You got it right. [reaches for his cell phone]

You can't use your phone until we land, sir.

We're flying in a Lockheed eagle series L-1011. It came off the line 20
months ago and carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still
flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?

Here’s the link to the full transcript from that West Wing episode (pilot episode, aired Sept ’99). It was the best show on television and we miss it!

Smoke on the plane – worst flight I’ve taken!

This is a story about the worst flight I’ve ever taken. It included terrible manners and even smoke on the plane! What was the worst flight you’ve ever taken?

It was my first time heading to the Middle East, and the flight from KL to Bahrain on Gulf Air was easily the worst international flight I’ve taken.  Please pardon the upcoming rant.

The worst flight I’ve taken

Like many flights, this was a packed plane with seats crammed together like cattle in coach. The guy in front of me reclined so much that the seat slammed against me every time he repositioned. There was no room to even open my tray table if I wanted to.  This creates a chain reaction where everyone reclines just to have room, but do so at your own peril since people sitting behind tend to fight back.  There was no support on my seat either. My seat kept getting kicked, pushing me forward into the one in front of me.  As people walked down the aisle they’d grab and pull the seats next to them for balance, which would jerk the whole seat back.

exiting the plan in Bahrain

Coughing all over me!

There were people coughing on all sides of me. Perhaps the custom is different but NONE of them covered their mouth.  Does anyone reading this know if there’s something to that?

Maybe I’m more of a germaphobe, but I can’t remember the last time I was in a confined space and the majority of people coughing didn’t cover their mouth. They didn’t cover their mouth with their arm, with their hand, their sleeve, nothing.

Every time I started to fall asleep my seat got violently kicked from behind or yanked backward.  But it’s a flight, all of these things happen.  Then they went from bad to worse.

Then I smelled smoke on the plane..

At this point of the flight I thought I smelled smoke.  It can’t be, that’s ridiculous. Perhaps I’m hallucinating from lack of sleep. I took a moment to confirm.

I asked the people seated near me, and apparently everyone around me only spoke Arabic (or didn’t want to hear from me?).

The smell was getting stronger.  I had a brief panic thought of, it’s probably nothing but… I’m on a flight to the Middle East and there’s smoke. Ahhhh!  What would you do?

Flight attendants to the rescue…I hope

The flight attendant came over, confirmed, and she started playing detective. It was coming from the lavatory. As the door opened, a small cloud of smoke came out. She told him that you can’t smoke on the plane. The guy said it was like that when he got in.

There was some brief commotion and finger pointing and they tracked down the culprit. Fortunately it was just cigarettes in the lavatory, and not a another 9/11 moment.

Hasn’t smoking been banned on airplanes for two decades??  In all my years of flying, I’ve seen the no-smoking sign lit the entire flight, and wondered why it’s still necessary.

Apparently there’s no fine or punishment – she just explained to the guy that it’s not allowed and he played dumb. She said it in English and Arabic.

Perhaps they should have made that a teachable moment for the flight, because an hour later…the exact thing happened an hour later. Different guy. Where am I??  Welcome to Gulf Air.  Welcome to the Middle East.

[note – the flight back on Gulf Air was actually on a modern plane and lived up to the reputation that you’d expect from highly rated international airlines]


I was so excited to finally land safely in Bahrain!