So what would you think if you were the B777 pilot who's radio communication with air traffic control was interrupted by a passenger's cell phone call? Or if you were the captain in command of a B747 that unexpectedly lost autopilot after takeoff and did not get it back until 4, count 'em four passengers turned off their portable electronic devices?
Well I'm guessing that these pilots would probably be leading the chorus of voices calling for some drastic change in the practically unenforced policy restricting the use of portable electronic devices on airplanes.
Now I am reporting that the problem of electro-magnetic interference affecting commercial flights is much bigger than previously suspected.
I have in my possession a new confidential report from the International Air Transport Association's safety data sharing program (STEADS) that shows over the past seven years, airlines around the world reported seventy five events in which portable electronic devices (let's just call them PEDs, okay?) are suspected of interfering with flight deck equipment. While phones were the source of interference in 40% of the reports, iPods, other MP3 players, laptops and portable games were also implicated.
What kind of problems? I'm not sure you want to know. All cockpit systems were affected, flight controls, communication, navigation and emergency warnings. No less an authority than Boeing's David Carson is leading the charge that passengers, airlines and regulators need to take seriously the risks of using electronic devices during critical phases of flight. "There are circumstances in which it can cause interference," he told me in January, explaining that he and others who have studied the issue for the FAA felt that it was important to "reduce the risk of something causing interference at a time when it would be part of a causal path to an incident."
Technical folks start throwing expressions like "causal path" around at the risk of seeing other folks' eyes glaze over. But in this case that would be the wrong response. Let me translate what the dear engineer is saying.
The use of PEDs on board will not - I repeat - will not cause a plane to go tumbling through the sky like something in a made-for-TV-disaster movie.
What PEDs can and in fact have already done, is create a distraction for the flight crew. When that distraction comes at the wrong time it can lead to pants-wetting episodes and maybe even disaster. And that is why boys and girls, devices are supposed to be turned off as in OFF, below 10 thousand feet. The concept is that with sufficient altitude below us there is time to address any pesky error messages that might wind up being transmitted to the cockpit. Only now we know that those messages are pretty darn common
In my story on this subject for The New York Times, in January, I reported ten pilot accounts in the NASA anonymous reporting system in the United States over the past 10 years. Its not inclusive, I know, but its the best I could get. Airlines keep that kind of data quiet for lots of reasons, most of them obvious. But that is why, when IATA showed a much higher number of events over a shorter period of time, I was flabbergasted.
I called Steve Lott, the always-helpful spokesman for IATA in Washington and asked him just how big of problem this could be.
"Steve," I asked, "since STEADS takes reports from only a quarter of the world's airlines, can we assume that 75 interference events is just a quarter of what might actually be happening on passenger carrying flights?" Because if my math is correct that would mean there could be as many as 300 events since 2003. Christine, he told me "it is the minimum, not the maximum.
The IATA report is not public, someone slipped it to me after my Times story ran to much controversy in January. Nevertheless - and this is why he is such a good media relations guy - Steve did explain the purpose of the report and what might happen next.
"Our goal is to communicate this back to the members and say, 'You are not the only ones who have experienced this.' It is important that we should flag this for regulators around the world to show that this is a problem."