You know those warnings when you get into a plane and they warn you to turn off cell phones and electronic devices and then you pretend like you turned it off and keep using it? Yeah well it turns out those warnings are real. ABC News retained a copy of confidential studies that report that there is a real possibility that cell phones and wireless devices can emit radio waves that can mess with planes internal wireless systems. Take a look:

A report by the International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing more 230 passenger and cargo airlines worldwide, documents 75 separate incidents of possible electronic interference that airline pilots and other crew members believed were linked to mobile phones and other electronic devices. The report covers the years 2003 to 2009 and is based on survey responses from 125 airlines that account for a quarter of the world’s air traffic.

Twenty-six of the incidents in the report affected the flight controls, including the autopilot, autothrust and landing gear. Seventeen affected navigation systems, while 15 affected communication systems. Thirteen of the incidents produced electronic warnings, including "engine indications." The type of personal device most often suspected in the incidents were cell phones, linked to four out of ten.

The report, which stresses that it is not verifying that the incidents were caused by PEDs, includes a sampling of the narratives provided by pilots and crewmembers who believed they were experiencing electronic interference.

They have cases of autopilot disengaging and the planes GPS reading incorrectly. It seems to be a question of wrong place/wrong time as devices spike in emissions, with the iPad noted as the worst offender, and these signals cross with the planes internal systems. The one saving grace is that newer planes (like the ones with wifi enabled capabilities) do in fact have appropriate shielding but that doesn’t impact older planes.

So next time you’re on a plane and you get that warning turn off your device and makes sure your neighbors aren’t faking it…crazy stuff right?


  1. As if pilots and flight attendants were a reliable source of technical information from why shit happens in the sky

  2. quote “documents 75 separate incidents of possible electronic interference that airline pilots and other crew members believed were linked to mobile phones and other electronic devices.”

    Great study…..Asking pilots and flight attendants instead of actually doing some research or performing tests to actually prove it.

  3. I’ve been told differently by a Delta Executive who stated that it’s safer to have everyones attetnion during take-offs and landing in case the crew needs to pass on quick instructions to the passengers. We do not require this procedure during charters such as professional sports teams. ABC has no clue really.

  4. I just don’t buy it. I’ve never seen a cell phone, tablet, or any other portable electronic device reset a car’s computer systems, and those aren’t even shielded the way a plane’s are. It’s probably just buggy software in the plane’s autopilot and GPS systems that airplane manufacturers don’t want to own up to. Imagine the liability if a software bug caused a plane to crash and people were injured or killed. If you owned an airline or built airplanes, who would you blame: your industry, or some individual who happened to be using an iPad in flight?

  5. @Davidk: Possibly. But you’ll never know whether a software bug was the real culprit. Even if Air France or the airplane’s manufacturer determined that a bug existed in the software that could cause that, why would they tell anyone and open themselves up to that liability?

  6. @Mark Jonson: i know they can apply science in an easier manner here but it sort of feels like proving that something causes cancer. You look at the empirical data and if it’s likely you make the call. Causation isn’t always so cut and dry.
    It does question why planes are fine during flights (with all devices on) but during take off the same signals would take down the system.

  7. I thought the Air France problem was with icing of the speed sensor?
    Anecdotal stories from flight crew about causes of malfunctions are worthless–might as well ask the nearest bird flying by..
    Only scientific measurements are meaningful. I would hope that shielding in all planes is good enough to block the weak phone and other electronic gadget emissions –otherwise planes would be falling out of the sky. Terrorists could use a directional antenna and send much stronger signals. None of this is happening.
    Do the math — the anecdotal evidence reported is not even close to being above noise level. If anything, it suggests that it’s absolutely safe to run cellphones, computers, etc….

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