Could a mobile phone ‘bring down’ a passenger plane?

Could a mobile phone ‘bring down’ a passenger plane?Earlier this week, I found myself catching a couple of flights (Glasgow to Berlin and back again, specifically), and the old issue of turning off personal electronic devices (PEDs) during take-off and landing raised its ugly head once again.

To be honest, I’m one of those people who roll their eyes internally when told to power down an iPad or a Kindle when approaching/leaving ground level, but having conducted a ton of research last night, I discovered there is some slightly terrifying logic at work.

See, I figured that if PEDs were truly dangerous to aircraft, surely airlines would have to employ some measure to confirm that – yes – passengers have actually adhered to the rules. How many times must people forget – or simply refuse (internally) – to turn off PEDs?

Indeed, I observed several people listening to music as we took off from Glasgow (I’m sure at least a couple of tablets were being waved around, too), though the flight attendants seemed a tad stricter when leaving Berlin – insisting that all PEDs were first switched to Flight Mode and subsequently powered off.

It all seems a tad wishy washy, and the lack of consistent enforcement made me wonder if it was simply a case of being overly cautious. If PEDs were really the monsters we’re led to believe, wouldn’t terrorists simply board flights in groups, each misguided member carrying a couple of handsets (one personal, one business), an iPad and a Kindle? Security wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

And let’s not forget: there’s not a single case of a recorded accident being caused by a PED.

That logic is backed up by the recent announcements by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), both of which conceded that phones and tablets set to Flight Mode shouldn’t pose any risk during low-level flight.

The key point there is Flight Mode. But what about phones and tablets left with their various connectivity options enabled?

As I learned from this CNET article, Boeing has successfully demonstrated PED interference at its Electromagnetic Interference Lab in Seattle.

Furthermore, an International Air Transport Association report reveals that dozens of incidences of PED interference on flights have been recorded in recent years, though replicating the necessary conditions is nigh on impossible.

Still, the pilots involved insist that they encountered interference with vital instruments, and upon instructing their flight attendants to hunt down and disable passenger PEDs, the interference magically vanished.

Statistically, we’re talking about an average of one incident in over quarter of a million flights, but it’s still enough to warrant concern; there’s not much room for error close to the ground. What happens if an altitude meter is 100ft off as a plane comes in to land, for example?

As Airbus wrote in a concerned letter to the FAA, there’s seemingly some confusion among passengers too, specifically pertaining to what the offending functions are: Wi-Fi? Bluetooth? Cellular?

With the EASA and FAA apparently close to relaxing restrictions during take-off and landing, it might be worthwhile extending safety demonstrations (and flight attendant training) to clarify exactly what is required of passengers and their PEDs, instead of the current half-hearted – and vaguely enforced – pleas.

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JanSt / MOD  Dec. 19, 2013 at 14:58

Also: quite curious that EMR of a much stronger quality can, OF COURSE, NOT harm humans... whose cells rely on minute electric stimuli...
All very dubious!


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