Phones on a Plane! Looking at the Numbers…

In June 2011, there was this report issued by a trade group called the International Air Transport Association (IATA), who documented 75 separate incidents of electronic interference that airline pilots and other crew members believed may have been linked to mobile phones and other on-board electronic devices.

Now, the IATA isn’t some rinky-dink outfit.  They represent 240 airlines which comprise 84% of international air traffic.  They’re the biggest game in global commercial air traffic.

Their report covered the years 2003 to 2009 and is based on survey responses from 125 airlines, accounting for a quarter of the world’s air traffic.

IATA looked at 25% of the global air traffic over six years and found 75 electronics malfunctions that flight crews believed might have been linked to on-board electronic devices (e.g. cell phones, laptops).

Unfortunately, that’s all their report said, and that kind of statistical reporting makes me angry because it’s either ambiguous or misleading.  Beyond the fact that flight crews aren’t scientists and able to determine whether or not the devices were actually what was causing the problems, exactly how many flights is 75 flights compared to 25% of six years of global air traffic?

It turns out, it’s really hard to know how many flights happen globally.  Go ahead and try to do a Google search on it – chances are, you found this as the page while looking for the answer.

Here’s what I can tell you.

The Official Airline Guide claimed that September 2012 saw around 2,600,000 flights.  Previous Septembers saw similar numbers:

September 2003: 2,100,000 flights
September 2004: 2,200,000 flights
September 2005: 2,300,000 flights
September 2006: 2,400,000 flights
September 2007: 2,500,000 flights
September 2008: 2,400,000 flights
September 2009: 2,400,000 flights

I like simple numbers and I prefer to aim low and err on the side of caution.

Let’s say there’s only two-million flights a month, every month, from 2003-2009.

That’s 144 million flights over six years.

And a quarter of that number is 36 million.

That means…

Of 36,000,000 flights, only 75 flights experienced electronics malfunctions that could possibly be linked to electronic devices.


To have some fun, let’s say it’s totally accurate reporting: let’s say that electronic devices did manage to mess with the airplane’s electronics, despite the fact that if you look on the back of every electronic device within your vicinity you will see that it complies with FCC regulations, including Part 15:

1. A device may not cause harmful interference.

2. A device must accept any interference received, including interference that may cause undesired operation.

So we’re forced to assume these devices are malfunctioning or otherwise defective.  Which is fine, because that kind of makes sense.  Quality control of electronic devices is pretty good, and even if your device is defective when you buy it, you generally return it to get one that’s not.  The chance of someone using a defective or seriously malfunctioning electronic device is pretty rare – we tend to replace those kinds of devices.  But in sheer volume, it stands to reason that there are plenty of malfunctioning electronic devices out there.  Certainly at least 75 over a period of six years.

Based in this assumption, the 75 flights that had defective electronic devices on board that caused electronic interference represent .00021% of flights surveyed.

That’s one flight in every 500,000 that experienced otherwise-unexplainable electronic interference, blaming electronic devices.

Once a week, somewhere on Earth, there is some electronic interference that messes with aircraft and flight crews judge it as being related to on-board electronic devices, mostly because there’s no other immediate explanation.

Usually it’s real Bermuda Triangle type-of-stuff.  Clocks spinning backwards and altimeters going crazy.  No serious instrument failures, no patterns between certain aircraft electronic systems and certain on-board electronic devices, and no reported damage.  But also not easily explained.  It’s not like lightning struck the plane, or something.  Speaking of which, “on average, every commercial aircraft is hit by lightning once a year.”

In 2003, there were around 18,000 total commercial aircraft on the planet.

Each year, each of those 18,000 aircraft is struck by lightning.

And each year, only 50 of those 18,000 aircraft experience electronic interference that they think might be related to on-board electronic devices (mostly because they can’t think of a better reason).  While they can’t be sure about the cause or nature of interference, they’re pretty certain about the lightning, but since we can’t do anything about the Terrorstorm we’re flying through, legitimate things that actually crash airplanes – lightning, poor maintenance, drunk pilots, flocks of geese: take your pick – don’t get included in the pre-flight safety briefing.

The final irony, of course, is how the FCC created the ban on cell phones back in 1991; the FAA adopted the regulation, as well, despite their having a longstanding policy about electronics not causing harmful interference.  It has since been the most absurd thing about flying…other than contemplating the difference between “a water landing” and crashing into the ocean.

2 thoughts on “Phones on a Plane! Looking at the Numbers…

  1. 1. Water landing and crashing into the ocean……two distinct differences from the aircrews perspective. A water landing is one that you’re able to plan for. A crash landing into the ocean means you don’t have the needed time and/or functioning parts needed to attempt to execute a water landing. Either way you are most likely in major trouble.

    2. I completely agree that cell phone interference is complete BS. The only time that electronic interference was ever a concern was if the weather was terrible and you were landing blind. The instruments that Air Traffic Control (ATC) use to guide the aircraft in could be impacted in rare situations and would only matter when you are low and on approach.

    3. We used everything from cell phones to MP3 players and never had a problem. For fun look up St. Elmo’s fire; probably a higher occurrence of that than electronic interference.

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