June 9, 2011 -- Like most airline passengers, you probably have serious doubts about those pre-flight announcements asking you to turn off your cellphones, blackberries, iPods and anything else electronic.
The announcements are flat-out ignored by many frequent fliers, who are skeptical that so-called "personal electronic devices" pose any safety threat to airplane. Some passengers openly rebel, like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who cursed out one flight attendant who demanded he turn off his cellphone.
But a confidential industry study obtained by ABC News indicates there really could be serious safety issues related to cellphones and other PEDs.
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.
"Auto pilot was engaged," reads one. "At about 4500 ft, the autopilot disengaged by itself and the associated warnings/indications came on. [Flight attendants] were immediately advised to look out for PAX [passengers] operating electronic devices. ... [Attendants] reported that there were 4 PAX operated electronic devices (1 handphone and 3 iPods)." The crew used the public address system to advise the passengers to shut off electronic devices "for their safety and the safety of the flight," after which the aircraft proceeded "without any further incident."
In other events described in the report, a clock spun backwards and a GPS in cabin read incorrectly while two laptops were being used nearby. During another flight, the altitude control readings changed rapidly until a crew member asked passengers to turn off their electronic devices. The readings returned to normal. "After an hour, changes were noticed again . . . Purser made a second announcement and the phenomena stopped."
PEDs Can Disrupt Electronic Sensors In Plane
Dave Carson of Boeing, the co-chair of a federal advisory committee that investigated the problem of electronic interference from portable devices, says that PEDs radiate signals that can hit and disrupt highly sensitive electronic sensors hidden in the plane's passenger area, including those for an instrument landing system used in bad weather.
"It could be you that you were to the right of the runway when in fact, you were to the left of the runway," said Carson, "or just completely wipe out the signal so that you didn't get any indication of where you are coming in."
Asked if a cellphone's signal could really be that powerful, Carson said, "It is when it goes in the right place at the right time."
To prove his point, Carson took ABC News inside Boeing's electronic test chamber in Seattle, where engineers demonstrated the hidden signals from several electronic devices that were well over what Boeing considers the acceptable limit for aircraft equipment. A Blackberry and an iPhone were both over the limit, but the worst offender was an iPad. There are still doubters, including ABC News's own aviation expert, John Nance.
"There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there, but it's not evidence at all," said Nance, a former Air Force and commercial pilot. "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 U.S., to be convincing."
Nance thinks there are alternate explanations for the events. "If an airplane is properly hardened, in terms of the sheathing of the electronics, there's no way interference can occur."
But Boeing engineers told us that signals from PEDs could disrupt the navigation and communication frequencies on older planes, which are not as well shielded as the newer models. And anything that distracts the pilots in the cockpit is considered a true threat to safety.