Nightly News   |  October 10, 2011

Mobile devices aboard may interfere with planes

If you fly at all these days, you know the rules: all mobile devices must be turned off during take-off and landing, and any time the aircraft is below 10,000 feet. But can mobile devices really interfere with planes’ operating systems? NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: OK. Anybody who flies knows the drill. Turn off all electronic devices during takeoff and landing. But how many times have you cheated, really, secretly tapped out a text or an email when you think the coast is clear ? And how many times have you paused to ask yourself, 'What harm does it really do?' Well, we've wondered about that ourselves, so we asked Tom Costello , who covers aviation for us, to look into it.

TOM COSTELLO reporting: Travel on any airline, any destination, the message is the same.

Unidentified Woman #1: There are certain electronic devices though that can interfere with the aircraft's navigational system and may not be used on board at any time.

COSTELLO: So can mobile devices really interfere with an aircraft's radios or sensitive electronics?

Unidentified Man: I don't think an iPhone can bring down an airplane.

COSTELLO: The answer is maybe. At a Boeing test center in Seattle , engineers laid out a variety of mobile devices for us, then scanned for interference . Within seconds, noise from the devices showed up in red.

Mr. BRUCE DONHAM (Boeing Technical Engineer): You see a lot more interference .

COSTELLO: That interference is coming from the video screens and internal computer chips, not cell transmitters. Turning on a cell phone creates bigger headaches.

Mr. DONHAM: If that signal couples onto wiring, it may affect an aircraft's system.

Mr. DAVE CARSON: We worked on this issue for about five years.

COSTELLO: Boeing 's Dave Carson chaired an investigative committee that included airlines, aircraft manufacturers and the government, looking at electronic interference . Is there any evidence that electronics have ever contributed to a crash or even a serious incident?

Mr. CARSON: There is no conclusive evidence. There's -- there are stories that when followed through we have been unable to prove.

COSTELLO: Investigators in New Zealand suspect but never proved that a pilot's cell phone call home may have caused his plane to crash in 2003 , killing eight. Other pilots have reported navigational equipment problems until passengers turned off their devices. It's not just the electronics on the flight deck that are a concern. A modern aircraft has antennas and wiring above, below and throughout that could be vulnerable. While today's aircraft are tested and certified to withstand some electronic interference , safety demands little to no interference during takeoff and landing.

Unidentified Woman #2: All cellular phones need to be in the off position.

COSTELLO: The potential for interference at just the wrong moment. Tom Costello, NBC News, Seattle.