Computer-Related Incidents with Commercial Aircraft

Do Passenger Electronics Interfere With Aircraft Systems?

With the increasing use by passengers of electronic systems such as laptop computers, Gameboys, and (even though it's illegal almost everywhere) portable personal telephones, coupled with the increasing use of electronics for safety-critical and safety-related aircraft systems, there is concern about whether passenger electronics can interfere with aircraft systems. Such concerns are borne out by an increasing number of suspected-interference reports by line pilots -- FAA/NASA's ASRS, Europe's EUCARE and British Airways BASIS reporting systems all contain anecdotes. RTCA Special Committee 177 was formed in 1992 at FAA request to investigate and try to substantiate these incidents, but so far the interference patterns seem to have resisted easy duplication in a laboratory. The essay Electromagnetic Interference with Aircraft Systems: why worry? gives some background, and collects comments and first-hand anecdotes from colleagues, some of whom are professional pilots, on some of the phenomena which need to be explained. I also suggest some ways in which changes in the regulatory environment might aid in reporting and investigating such incidents. Albert Helfrick's short article, Avionics and Portable Electronics: Trouble in the Air ( Acrobat PDF, 26K), which discusses some of the technical background, appeared in Avionics News Magazine, September 1996.

In her article The Fall of TWA 800: The Possibility of Electromagnetic Interference, New York Review of Books, Special Supplement, April 9, 1998, pp59-76 (also available at, Elaine Scarry proposed that EMI might have been a causal factor in the crash of TWA800 in July 1996. I find this supposition highly implausible, and I wrote a critique of her argument, EMI and TWA800: Critique of a Proposal, Report RVS-J-98-03, on 10 April 1998.