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Turning off iPhone essential to pilots reporting interference

The regional airliner was climbing past 9,000 feet when its compasses went haywire, leading pilots several miles off course until a flight attendant persuaded a passenger in row 9 to switch off an iPhone.

“The timing of the cell phone being turned off coincided with the moment where our heading problem was solved,” the unidentified co-pilot told NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System about the 2011 incident. The plane landed safely.

Public figures from Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill to actor Alec Baldwin have bristled at what they say are excessive rules restricting use of tablets, smart phones, laptops and other devices during flights.

More than a decade of pilot reports and scientific studies tell a different story. Government and airline reporting systems have logged dozens of cases in which passenger electronics were suspected of interfering with navigation, radios and other equipment.

The FAA in January appointed an advisory committee from the airline and technology industries to recommend whether or how to broaden electronics use in planes. The agency will consider the committee’s recommendations, which are expected in July, it said in a statement.

Laboratory tests have shown some devices broadcast radio waves powerful enough to interfere with airline equipment, according to NASA, aircraft manufacturer Boeing and Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority.

Even Delta Air Lines, which argued for relaxed rules, told the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration its pilots and mechanics reported 27 suspected incidents of passenger electronics causing aircraft malfunctions from 2010 to 2012. Atlanta-based Delta said it couldn’t verify there was interference in any of those cases.

The airline industry has been divided. Delta said in its filing that it welcomes more electronics use because that’s what its passengers want. United Continental Holdings said it preferred no changes because they’d be difficult for flight attendants to enforce.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group representing mobile companies, and Amazon.com, the Seattle online retailer that sells the Kindle e-reader, urged the FAA last year to allow wider use of devices.

Passengers’ use of technology and wireless services “is growing by leaps and bounds” and should be expanded as long as it is safe, the Consumer Electronics Association, a Virginia-based trade group, said in its FAA filing last year.

The potential risks from personal electronic devices are increasing as the U.S. aviation system transitions to satellite-based navigation, the FAA said.

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