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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Leaping to Conclusions on a Pilot\'s Speculation

An article on the Bloomberg News Web site on Wednesday noted an airline pilot's claim that an iPhone could interfere with a plane's compasses during takeoff and landing.

But the report cited in the article isn't based on scientific research. It was merely one pilot's speculation.

The pilot even called it speculation in a report filed in NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System.

In the incident, which took place in May 2011, a pilot said the compass of the regional airliner he was flying went haywire after takeoff, when the plane was at an altitude of around 9,000 feet. The pilot said he suspected “cellphones left on may contribute to the heading problems.”

I read the report at the time of the incident, and it offered no proof nor cited any evidence detailing how the smartphone could have interfered with the plane's aeronautics. What's more, the pilot's statement incorrectly described the status of the phone.

“A passenger in row 9 had an iphone in the standby mode; not airplane mode or off,” the pilot said in the report. There is no such thing as “standby mode” on an iPhone.

According to the pilot's report, when the passenger turned the phone off, the compass problem was resolved. (There were just 11 other passengers on board.)

Even the Federal Aviation Administration will acknowledge that there is no scientific proof that today's gadgets can interfere with a plane's avionics. A year ago, I asked Les Dorr, a spokesman for the F.A.A., who said that any incidents were anecdotal.

The Bloomberg article also said the the Association of Flight Attendants union “told the F.A.A. last year that electronic devices should be stowed during those critical phases of flight, just as bags and purses must be.”

Yet last year, when I spoke with Stacy K. Martin, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents more than 10,000 flight attendants, he said the flight attendants' unions hoped the F.A.A. would provide some relief from the stringent rules about gadgets on planes.

“We're not policemen,” Mr. Martin said. “We're not going to be able to get anything done if we have to ask people if they're wearing sunglasses or computer glasses and if their watch is a computer” - a reference to wearable computers that passengers will soon be wearing on flights.

Mr. Levin also notes that “the dangers from radio waves interfering with electronic equipment has been known for decades.” He cited an incident in 1967, “when a rocket on a fighter jet accidentally fired after a radar beam triggered an electronic malfunction.” This was 47 years ago, and didn't involve a smartphone, tablet or laptop, as none of those devices existed at the time.

A study released last week by two industry groups, the Airline Passenger Experience Association and the Consumer Electronics Association, found that many as 30 percent of all passengers said they had accidentally left a device on during takeoff or landing.

In 2010, 712 million passengers flew within the United States. That means roughly 213 million people accidentally left a device on at least once during takeoff and landing. How many abnormalities were observed on all those flights?

Last year, after months of pressure, the F.A.A. said it would begin a review of its policies on electronic devices in all phases of flight. The agency is expected to release its findings later this year.