Cellphones could interfere with avionics – report

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An International Air Transport Association (IATA) report has revealed dozens of cases where flight crews believed electronic devices from passengers disrupted the aircraft’s electronics, but there is still no conclusive proof that cellphone signals are harmful to avionics.

The report was obtained by US broadcaster ABC News and documents 75 incidents between 2003 and 2009 of possible interference that flight crew thought were linked to cellphones and other electronic devices. The report is based on survey responses from 125 airlines accounting for a third of global air traffic, according to ABC News.

Of the 75 incidents, 26 involved problems with the flight controls, 17 involved the navigation systems and 15 involved the communications systems and thirteen incidents produces electronic warnings.

In many of the cases cabin crew noticed passengers using electronic devices, especially cellphones, at the time of each incident.

IATA said the report obtained by ABC News was one of many produced for its 230-plus members by its Global Safety Information Centre (GSIC). A spokesman said it was intended for internal circulation only.

John Nance, author, former pilot and ABC aviation analyst, said the report was merely a collection of anecdotes. “There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there, but it’s not evidence at all,” he said. “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 US, to be convincing.”

Civil aviation authorities generally prohibit the use of cellphones on aircraft in flight due to concerns that the signals might interfere with aircraft’s avionics, particularly its navigation systems, and disrupt cellphone towers on the ground.

IATA said that it “shares the concerns of aircraft manufacturers regarding the unknown effects of different electronic devices on aircraft, as noted by the Boeing [Company]. Last week, Boeing issued an advisory regarding the use of iPads by pilots due to interference with cockpit displays, and we therefore recommend that all passengers comply with the manufacturers guidance, FAA and other regulatory authority guidance, etc, all of whom limit the use of these devices to non-critical phases of flight.”
“There are many unknowns regarding these devices (especially transmitters such as wireless devices, wireless gaming controllers, etc.) and in the interest of safety, passengers should not be ignoring these conservative rules.”

An increasing minority of international airlines are offering in-flight cellphone services. It has never been rigorously proven that cellphone signals do in fact cause system failures on aircraft whether in flight or on the ground, although Boeing has said that tests have shown that cellphones produced electronic signals over the safe limit for avoiding interference.

Nevertheless, due to advances in technology and rigorous testing, airlines like Emirates and Malaysian Airlines are offering in-flight cellphone services and numerous others, such as Cathay Pacific, are following suite.



In South Africa, South African Airways (SAA) has been testing the use of cellphones in flight, starting on April 15. SAA was granted an exclusive six-month exemption from SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) rules.
“The SACAA acknowledges that technology advances rapidly,” SACAA spokesman Kabelo Ledwaba said. “It came as no surprise when the SACAA was approached by the SAA for an exemption.” If successful, other airlines like Comair (operator of British Airways in South Africa and Kulula) will follow suit.