June 9, 2011 at 2:16 PM ET
Maybe you really should turn off your cell phone when the flight attendant tells you to. No, really.
According to a confidential report obtained by ABC News, interference from cell phones and other personal electronic devices (PEDs) may, in fact, present serious safety concerns for aircraft.
The report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global industry trade group, surveyed commercial pilots and crewmembers and cited 75 incidents in which the respondents believed PEDs may have created electronic interference that impacted flight systems.
Twenty-six incidents affected flight controls, while 17 affected navigation systems and 15 affected communication systems. Thirteen, says ABC, produced “engine indications” and other warnings. According to respondents, activated electronic devices caused GPS and altitude-control readings to read incorrectly and change rapidly.
“It could be that you were to the right of the runway when in fact, you were to the left of the runway,” Dave Carson of Boeing told ABC.
Although the report doesn’t confirm that the incidents were caused by PEDs, it does note that in several instances, instrument readings returned to normal after crewmembers made passengers turn off their devices.
"We can't say categorically that these devices cause interference," IATA spokesman Chris Goater told msnbc.com, "but there are enough anecdotal reports from pilots to raise the question."
Finding that direct link may only get more difficult, especially as the number and variety of PEDs increase and airplanes rely more heavily on “fly-by-wire,” or electric systems that may be more susceptible to interference than the mechanical systems found in older planes.
“The upshot is that those PEDs emit energy that could interfere with the signals from the control column to the control surfaces,” said aviation safety consultant Steve Cowell of SRC Aviation LLC. “There’s quite a bit of shielding, but it’s also possible that it may not be enough.”
Other stories you might like
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.