Could your mobile device really bring down the plane?

By on June 13, 2011, 1:00 PM

Most airline passengers have doubts that their electronic device(s) can impact the functioning of the plane they are on. Many frequent fliers simply ignore the warnings, but the majority adheres to them, just in case. Is there any validity to the notion that your electronic device could bring down a plane? There actually might be, according to a confidential industry study by the International Air Transport Association obtained by ABC News.

The International Air Transport Association is a trade group representing more than 230 passenger and cargo airlines worldwide. Its report documents 75 separate incidents of possible electronic interference that airline crew members believed were linked to electronic devices. The report, which covers the years 2003 to 2009, is based on survey responses from 125 airlines that account for a quarter of the world's air traffic.

26 of the incidents in the report affected the flight controls, including the autopilot, autothrust, and landing gear. 17 affected navigation systems, 15 affected communication systems, and 13 produced electronic warnings including "engine indications." The type of personal device most often suspected in the incidents (40 percent) was of course the mobile phone.

The report stresses that it is not verifying the incidents were caused by mobile devices. It merely summarizes the anecdotal evidence provided by pilots, flight attendants, and other crewmembers who believed they were experiencing electronic interference. It could be very possible that the problems described were being caused by electromagnetic fields and other natural occurrences in the atmosphere. Still, is it worth it for you to take that risk?

User Comments: 45

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Guest said:

So if it can take down a plane then why hasn't my car had problems with me using my phone. I tell you some people in this world are pathetically stupid i mean if a phone can cause problems to a plane then the technology in that plane must be freaking out of this world as i have never heard of phone signals to somehow mess with onboard chips ect

brianmsu said:

didn't myth busters disprove this??? :P

Guest said:

Can't use your phone so they can charge you the over priced rate!

Guest said:

I believe Mythbusters showed that the phones shouldn't interfere at all with the controls, but that the real risk was the battery of the phone heating up and casuing a fire because the phone would be using the battery much more intensely while searching for a signal due to not being near enough to any cell phone towers. They also cited several incidents where phones left on and stored in luggage both in the cargo area and the passenger cabin did indeed cause fires due to battery overheating issues.

Cota Cota said:

brianmsu said:

didn't myth busters disprove this??? :P

Well they did, but in a new generation private jet, now commercial aircraft's... that's another story, how many times we had seen crash reports that point to bad maintenance, are we sure all the wiring is shielded from radio signals?, theres no way to know if all the kilometers of cable in the plane is protected from it but the real deal here is if we risk it, besides they only ask you to turn them off while the plane takes off oi lands.

TomSEA TomSEA, TechSpot Chancellor, said:

You guys really think Mythbuster episodes are gospel, eh? That's pretty funny.... :p

Guest said:

I watched the report on abc news. It said the phones could disable the auto pilot and other electronics. That is why i don't fly; i will drive if i need to go somewhere. The pilots need to know how to fly without all the gadgets then maybe i will start flying again. Until the Pilots relearn how to fly plains i will keep my but on the ground.

Jesse Jesse said:

TomSEA said:

You guys really think Mythbuster episodes are gospel, eh? That's pretty funny.... :p

Typically a lot better than anecdotal conjecture.

Guest said:

@TomSEA: You say "eh", that's pretty funny.

mario mario, Ex-TS Developer, said:

I really don't care about using my mobile devices that much in the air, I've heard/read using cellphones is discouraged because it might make flying a really awful(er?) experience if it were a 100 people using their phones.

What I would really like to know is why do I have to put my seat in an upright position!!?? :P

ibgarrett said:

As a pilot I am highly skeptical of such an article. They actually make aviation headsets that allow for Bluetooth integration between a cell phone and the pilot's headset. Now granted I only fly General Aviation planes, but ultimately it will NOT bring down a plane. I could MAYBE see it disengaging an auto-pilot under an extreme circumstance. I can also see a phone possibly causing problems with the GPS - but you practically would have to put the phone right up next to the device for it to have any effect.

Almost all major airlines are looking very closely at the iPad, or have already started their conversion for use in maps and all the other documentation pilots are required to carry on their flights. How do they get the planes to differentiate between the pilots iPad and the passengers? And it's not just iPads, there are many other types of Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) being used that would put off the same kind of EMF.

I think the key word in this whole article is "anecdotal" - in other words, they haven't a clue.

TomSEA TomSEA, TechSpot Chancellor, said:

"Almost all major airlines are looking very closely at the iPad, or have already started their conversion for use in maps and all the other documentation pilots are required to carry on their flights."




I disregard their warnings. Stupid policy put in place by some know-it-all that really didn't have a clue. Plane always lands safely at destination.

H3llion H3llion, TechSpot Paladin, said:

Honestly doubt it, maybe if the cell acts like a homing beacon for a missile then yeah :P

stewi0001 stewi0001 said:

Yea I'm gonna call bull too. I'm glad to hear from some pilot(s), but even if you are not and you are just a nerd think about all the other equipment we work with and why won't they be affected.

Also, IF it really is that big of a concern. Do you think they would still let us take our tech onto plane?

I can understand 80's cell phones messing something up, maybe...

Per Hansson Per Hansson, TS Server Guru, said:

Guest said:

I watched the report on abc news. It said the phones could disable the auto pilot and other electronics. That is why i don't fly; i will drive if i need to go somewhere. The pilots need to know how to fly without all the gadgets then maybe i will start flying again. Until the Pilots relearn how to fly plains i will keep my but on the ground.

Umm yea, because people driving cars do such a fine job at it you mean?

Waaay safer to drive a car than go by airplane?

Guest said:

If Cellular phones can take down a plane then why aren't the al Qaeda listed this as their most valuable weapon???

akannitaoheed said:

Most or all electronic devices I have seen always come with a label or warning sign saying : designed to receive interference but can't cause any dangerous interference. That is complying with some FCC rules or thereabout. If these devices are claimed to comply with these standards then these claims that they affect flight controls are totally baseless.

giorgiotani said:

It seems quite difficult to believe, such a grievous vulnerability should have been patched before cellphones left research and development departments!

TechM633 said:

Oh the horror. Now because of articles like this, terrorists will start trying to bring down planes with their iphone (now if we could only convince them of

Next thing you know, TSA will be "screening" (excuse the pun) our phones for threats. I wonder if there will be a no fly list for certain types of phones....or even worse, individual phones. Sounds goofy I know, but look at who we are talking about here.........

Xclusiveitalian Xclusiveitalian said:

I heard somewhere that the airlines made up the whole cell phone bid and say it so airline passengers put away there phones and listen to the pilot's message's.... Also I would think if it was true in this day and age in technology they would be able to do something where it automatically engages if a certain "check" or switch isn't activated.

giorgiotani said:

I would add, it seems very strange that only planes' electronic is affected: I mean, electronics is everywhere now, in any office, kitchen, car, hospital, traffic lights... why just planes should be vulnerable to cellphones while other electronics works fine with them or at most just get some advices of being used with caution with cellphones?

And if it is true, why not just replace the electronic with different circuitry less prone to such incidents?

Cellphones are mainstream since '90s, I guess most plane models undergo many revisions in 20+ years and could have been patched.

And, in 20 years, with nearly anyone having one or more cellphone, I've not ever read of a confirmed serious plane accident due to cellphones, so the chances of serious interferences must be very very low.

And finally, if such a vulnerability has some serious odd to take down a plane, why terrorists and conventional aerial warfare rely on explosives, missiles, guns etc rather on a scaled up emitter on same frequencies of cellphones?

All of this sums up the story to be likely a myth, or an extremely exaggerated alarm after a very few not too serious (or dubious) cases.

veLa veLa said:

Yet phones don't **** with anything else?

I call BS.

Guest said:

Phones to interfere with other technologies. For example, my wireless phone in my house can interfere with my wireless signal. My microwave can interfere with my wireless signal. When you have a lot of complex signals in the air why is it so hard to believe the signals can interfere with one and another. Now will a cell phone bring down a plan? No, not very likely considering the human component in place (pilot). I'm just seeing a growing trend of people out here that think that they are above everyone else. Looks it a rule, why fight it? Are you so important that you need to be making phone calls at 30,000 feet? If you are then you should be flying private. In the slim chance that it's a true safety reason, why must people fight it. Can't you just accept that it's a rule and to follow it?

Is it the need to fight authority? (you need to pick your battles better) Is it the need to feel big and better then the person next to you? (take a course on self esteem) Honestly, no one cares. But if my plane goes down or has an extra bump in the flight just because a certain person has to go and call into work to say, "I'm in the air, will land in 2 hours". I'm going to be pissed, and then make sure I'm in front of the debarkation line and tie my shoes...both of them.

Now I feel better.


Guest said:

They should build the cabin with the controls with paneling that wont let the signals from the mobile fones to interfere with the controls and your problem would b solved and u could use ur mobile fone wenever u want.

aj_the_kidd said:

Better to be safe then sorry, IMO, personally i dont think a phone could bring down a plane, mess with controls a little but i hardly think it would bring down a plane, but then again thats my ignorance speaking.

Guest said:

I would have thought that if there is any truth in this, every time there was a stroke of lightening anywhere near the phone it would fall out of the sky. EMF bursts from lightening can be very intense. Also, EMF interference from electric motors would be a problem.

dividebyzero dividebyzero, trainee n00b, said:

Could your mobile device really bring down the plane?

Hell yes !!!

...ah, you meant a cellphone (presumeably not gutted and filled with C4)

Guest said:

IMHO, the real reason they don't want you to use a cell phone on a plane is that it would be able to see too many cell sites from that height, and it might jam up the cell network. The cells rely on relative signal strength to handover your communications from one cell to another as you move around. If you have a booming signal into dozens of cells at the same time... the system might not be able to handle that.

Lokalaskurar Lokalaskurar said:

From what I've heard, only GSM phones can interfere with *semi-analogue* flight equipment. I've heard that (for instance) 3G does squat as for interference.

Unfortunately, GSM is also the most common type of cellphone

Richy2k9 said:

hello ...

whether it be true or not, i'm not the one who want to challenge this & i feel it's not necessary to have one's head glued to a cellphone.

there are some risks of interference, not only from mobile phones, but also from other electronic devices, there are also some risk of deviation & a lot some of you already mentioned.

still when you are up there there is little you can do if proven wrong, so safe side would be not to use temporarily something until safe on ground.

people can also be killed on land while on the phone & crossing the streets ...

oh btw, i said i worked for an ISP, well being in telecoms & recently been introduced to the mobile world, there are far better concern about use & misuse of such devices, but most of problems would be a humanware issue.


PanicX PanicX, TechSpot Ambassador, said:

I have to step outside my house to receive a quality signal on my cellphone. If that prerequisite is also applied to flights, I'll gladly keep my phone off.

Benny26 Benny26, TechSpot Paladin, said:

There's obviously no clear 'know-how' on the whole idea. With the aviation of today, they're so quick to jump on potential deadly hazards. Granted, every man and his dog have a mobile phone device nowadays, and the task of stoppng people taking them on planes or just using them on planes would be a nightmare, but if that's what to be done...They'd have to do it.

I suppose that would only be temporary though, as it would be much easier and safer overall to deal with the planes rather than the people.

NeoFryBoy said:

If your phone could bring down a 747 jet I hope they would have you check it with the hostess, and not just trust that you turned it off.

Guest said:

I work as an aircraft mechanic and here is the deal:

No the mobile phone can not disturb the airplane system itself. The issue is [which is not even really proved, but only for precaution] that mobile phone works in the same range as some of communication and navigation frequencies which ones could be disturbed.

On the other side recently noticed that on aircrafts the announcement doesnt exactly say anymore that you have to switch off your phone. It says please switch off all electronic equipment during takeoff and landing. This is for the passengers safety during the 2 most critical phase of flying.

Guest said:

Ever heard of airplane mode???


Guest said:

you've hit the nail on the head. People are rebelious by nature and they want to stand out. I could care less how vaild the study is but if they say using your cell phone is gonna screw things up, why risk it? at 20,000 feet, you can't pull over if you have a problem.

Guest said:

Wow, now flight attendents and pilots are moonlighting as eletrical engineers...

example1013 said:

Per Hansson said:

Guest said:

I watched the report on abc news. It said the phones could disable the auto pilot and other electronics. That is why i don't fly; i will drive if i need to go somewhere. The pilots need to know how to fly without all the gadgets then maybe i will start flying again. Until the Pilots relearn how to fly plains i will keep my but on the ground.

Umm yea, because people driving cars do such a fine job at it you mean?

Waaay safer to drive a car than go by airplane?

Statistically you are much less likely to get into an accident on a plane than in a car. Planes are the safer mode of travel.

Also, right off the bat I see a possible problem with this survey. 25% of all air traffic? The sample is too large.

Guest said:

If you look at the logic and lets say just for argument that a cell phone is a threat to onboard systems, then the authorities would ban them from the plane in the first place. There is no way they would allow ordinary folk to make decisions about having a mobile device switched on and to endanger a flight by making a call.

Compared to 100 mls or more of liquid or gel, a knife or a screw driver, these things are not permitted onto a plane and for good reason.

Bottom line is; if it were really an issue then no one would be able to take a device on the plane in the first place.

Guest said:

it's like saying ok you can take guns on board, but please unload the bullets during take of and landing, ridiculous idea right?

there is no way they would allow some donut to even have a cell phone if it were a real threat.

belto said:

To use a mobile while in flight is like using the bathroom during the flight. There is proper etiquette while using such devices no matter your location or place, headsets, Bluetooth, silent/vibrate mode. While living in Europe or visiting it is customary for using your mobile for just about anything but one must be civilized and not rude about using it.

To me using different radio frequencies and bandwidths for the vital instruments, equipments and not sharing the same ones as mobile providers will end this all. i mean you cab be in Boston and use your mobile but emergency services can overrun your signal and you can hear the emergency be broadcasted thru your mobile while in a talk with someone. To me this is a bit scary and yet highly unacceptable. While I was living in the EU you never had this problem and the EU has a rather large mobile users ans providers.

Set up guidelines ans strict rules as they are in place already. I mean you can use Wi-Fi and view satellite TV while in flight. All these things are working off of sats already.

Guest said:

It WON'T bring down a plane. "Anecdotal"?? hardly evidence. I made a phone call on a bush plane and was in a lot closer proximity to the cockpit area (there wasn't even a door separating the passengers from the pilot or controls!) and NOTHING happened. If there were any interference, the pilot would have said something. In fact, he did not even tell us to turn off our phones! If my phone, being in closer proximity to a much smaller aircraft did not affect it, how much less would it interfere on a much bigger plane that has the cockpit shielded by the passengers...even the 1st row in first class doesn't sit as close to the cockpit as I was in that bush plane!

Guest said:

Yeh, try driving from San Francisco to Hong Kong and back...

Malcolm Telford said:

The whole concept is ri-dic-ulos! If there really was a problem passengers would be forbidden to board their aircraft while in possession with a mobile phone, or ipad or similar electronic transmitting device. You see it has occurred to me that on approach to land and on the departure, aircraft would overfly literally dozens of mobile phone towers transmitting a much stronger signal than any hand held devices. En route it would also fly close to other tv transmitting installations, various microwave repeating stations, the list is endless, not to mention airport radar services which itself is a radio transmitting device. Sorry I do accept that these devices could bring down a plane. So one of two things need to happen. 1. Build planes so their electronics are immune to these devices, or 2. forbid allowing them onboard in the first instance. It would seem then that on the meantime, "its a problem, but its not really a problem".

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