Qantas Looking To Blame A330's Sudden Drop in Altitude On Passengers' Gadgets?

Earlier this week, a Qantas A330 inexplicably climbing 300 feet then nose-diving back down. In the cabin, 71 people were injured. Interestingly, the ATSB is now looking at in-cabin interference from personal electronics as a possible cause of the "irregularity with the aircraft's elevator control system." Wait, what? Really?

AU: I feel the need to clarify this: the original article on this stated that investigators were looking at "onboard computers" being the cause of the sudden dive. An enterprising (and unnamed) journo at AAP decided that "onboard computers" must mean "passenger laptops" and hence the rumour was born. While the investigators havent ruled out passenger laptops as a possible cause, they also haven't ruled out the possibility that the co-pilot rendered the entire cockpit unconscious with a stench-laden, in-flight meal-fuelled fart (okay, they may have ruled that out). My point is that this is a media beatup fuelled by some shoddy journalism. You may continue flying with your gadgets without fear of dying.

UPDATE: Check out this APC piece by David Braue about the whole incident. It's a good look at the real facts involved with the story.

This wouldn't be the first time Qantas has blamed passengers' gadgets for an in-flight mishap; in July, a Bluetooth mouse was said to have resulted in a Qantas jet's autopilot being thrown off course. Passengers on Tuesday's ill-fated altitude drop will now be questioned regarding what electronics they may have been using at the time of the incident.

The issue of whether everyday personal electronics can actually cause any significant problems on board an airliner is clouded, to say the least. On one hand, it's hard to see how such common devices that meet FCC and UL interference standards can affect airliners that are designed to be able to withstand lightning strikes—critical components on a commercial jet are shielded to prevent any kind of interference getting through. On the other side, claims of the insulation degrading in older jets making them more susceptible to interference make sense. Then of course there is the perfectly rational "why chance it" argument.

This Wiki page delves into the issue in more detail, and Patrick from Ask the Pilot, one of my favourite online columns, gave the issue a characteristically sober and level-headed look earlier this year (verdict: interference technically possible but highly unlikely). So why Qantas would be making a push for this line of reasoning is kind of a mystery.

What about you guys? Do you heed the warnings to turn off everything, or fly in the face of danger with iPod blaring away during takeoff. Must admit I've been guilty of the latter, occasionally.

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[NZ Herald via Slashdot, Photo: Daquella Manera/Flickr]

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