The madness of mile-high dialling
Many people worry about Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) such as laptops and mobile phones interfering with aircraft navigation. However, the risk from PEDs might might not lie where you think. It seems you are at far greater risk from the bad behaviour of your fellow passengers and their devices than from a possible navigation glitch.
The real challenge lies in managing human behaviour. Can you safely take PEDs away? And if you can’t, how do you get people to use them safely? To me, this is a much more interesting question than whether they interfere with aircraft systems.
The NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) maintains a rolling dataset of the 50 most recent reports referencing passenger electronic devices incidents. Of the most recent 50 (as of July 2012), only about a third reported possible interference from a PED. Another third reported aggressive or uncooperative behaviour from passengers attempting to use a PED. The final third of reports were of PEDs overheating, catching fire or emitting fumes.
The reports of PED interference were generally anecdotal from the flight crew. Crews put forward PED interference as a probable (but not proven) reason for instrumentation glitches. The IEEE says that “there is no definitive instance of an air accident known to have been caused by a passenger’s use of an electronic device.” That doesn’t mean it’s not real, but it might not be the real worry.
The US FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed the Administrator of the FAA to conduct a study on the impact of the use of cell phones for voice communications in an aircraft during a flight in scheduled air transportation. The focus of the study was on whether cellphones could be safely used when on-board cellular telephone base stations were installed.
The report has been frustratingly difficult to track down, but I found a July 2012 draft. The non-US civil aviation authorities consulted by the FAA reported no documented occurrences of cell phones affecting flight safety on aircraft when base stations were installed. Out of all the civil aviation authorities consulted, only New Zealand reported any possible interference from cellphones (twice) used in flight when a base station was not installed.
The FAA report noted that noncompliance with crewmember safety instructions on the use of PEDs has resulted in passengers being removed from an aircraft, and in some cases caused an in-flight diversion.
However, none of the civil aviation authorities consulted by the FAA reported any cases of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations.
So, conclusions? People get aggressive when something they consider to be a right is taken away. Allowing cellphones with a base station onboard seems to reduce the likelihood of air rage. You are probably going to be safer (if not undisturbed) on a plane that has a base station and allows the use of PEDs.