Wireless interference from an iPhone has been blamed for disrupting the compasses on a regional airliner and sending pilots several miles off course. The incident happened on a 2011 flight as it climbed past 9,000 feet, but the issue was resolved when a flight attendant asked a passenger to turn their iPhone off.
“The timing of the cellphone being turned off coincided with the moment where our heading problem was solved,” the unidentified co-pilot told NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System.
Many have called for the FAA to relax restrictions on electronic devices — such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops — during flights. Several public figures, including U.S. Senator Clair McCaskill, believe existing rules are excessive and “ridiculous.”
This has led to the FAA appointing an advisory committee from the airline and technology industries to make recommendations on how it could broaden the use of electronics during flights. Those recommendations are expected this July.
But pilot reports and scientific studies suggest that today’s restrictions may be necessary, after all. Bloomberg reports “government and airline reporting systems have logged dozens of cases in which passenger electronics were suspected of interfering with navigation, radios and other aviation equipment.”
Laboratory tests have shown that some devices broadcast radio waves powerful enough to interfere with airline equipment, according to NASA, Boeing, and the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Furthermore, the FAA believes the risk of interference from personal electronics is increasing as the U.S. aviation industry adopts satellite-based navigation to improve efficiency and allow planes to fly closer together using GPS.
Airlines have been divided on the subject. Delta, which reported 27 suspected incidents of electronic interference causing aircraft malfunctions between 2010 to 2012, welcomes relaxed restrictions because it’s what passengers want.
Four in ten passengers surveyed last December said that they want to be able to use electronics at anytime throughout flights.
United said that it would prefer no change because new rules could be difficult for flight attendants to enforce.
CTIA, an international non-profit trade association representing the wireless communications industry, and Amazon have urged the FAA to relax existing rules, and they insist that personal electronics don’t cause interference.
Existing rules prohibit the use of most personal electronics while a plane is below 10,000 feet. Above that altitude, devices can be used as long as they are in “airplane mode” and wireless radios are switched off — though they can still connect to in-flight Wi-Fi networks.