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No, Your Phone Doesn't Pose A Safety Risk to the Boeing 777 or 737

July 20, 2019
5 min read
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Earlier this week, a series of troubling headlines surfaced claiming that passenger cell phones posed a safety risk to the Boeing 777 and Boeing 737. That story was originally reported by Bloomberg, accompanied by the following headline: "Cellphones a Flight Risk? Could Be on Some Boeing Jets."

Other headlines on syndicated sites including Fortune magazine were far more alarmist. However, it doesn't take an expert or an aerospace engineer to determine that these headlines were unwarranted and almost completely false. Here's why it's extremely unlikely — if not impossible — that passenger electronics pose a safety threat to some Boeing aircraft.

Bloomberg Report Cites 2012 Laboratory Test

Had this story broke seven years earlier, the headlines might have been more acceptable. However, Bloomberg's reporting cites a laboratory test carried out by Boeing in 2012. Additionally, the majority of Bloomberg's reporting relies entirely on that 2012 test.

In 2012, Boeing determined that instrument panels found on select Boeing 777 and Boeing 737 aircraft could be susceptible to mobile device interference. The laboratory test did not single out passenger devices, however, an airworthiness directive from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2014 cited WiFi and mobile network signals as potential sources of interference.

Moreso, the extent to which the flaws impact select Honeywell instrument panels found on some Boeing 777 and Boeing 737s were greatly overstated by recent reporting.

Wi-Fi, Mobile Phone Signals Have Not Contributed to Instrument Failure

Though numerous sources have reported on the faulty instrument panels, there has yet to be a documented case in which all instrument panels failed as a result of devices commonly brought onboard and used in-flight by passengers.

Aside from a test conducted by Boeing in 2012, Honeywell told Bloomberg that it was only aware of one incident involving the instruments. In that incident, all instrument panels went black. Honeywell notes that the cause of that incident was not related to Wi-Fi or mobile phone signal interference.

The flight deck of a Boeing 777-200 is seen in a flight simulator. (Photo by: Images Group via Getty Images)
The flight deck of a Boeing 777-200 is seen in a flight simulator. (Photo by: Images Group via Getty Images)

It Is Highly Unlikely That Passenger Devices Will Pose a Threat to Aircraft

Fortune syndicated the content originally reported by Bloomberg. The content from Bloomberg was accompanied by the headline "Flying on a Boeing 737 or 777? It’s Probably Best to Turn Off Your Phone." Aside from Boeing and Honeywell discrediting the idea that a cell phone not placed into airplane mode could interfere with Boeing 777 and Boeing 737 aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration's airworthiness directive provides additional insight into the urgency of the matter, or rather the lack thereof.

The 2014 airworthiness directive published by the FAA determined that any aircraft with three or more of the susceptible instrument panels would require new instrument panels.

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However, the timeline for inspection and corrective action was set at 60 months or five years. Bloomberg noted that a 60-month action window indicated that the issue was not urgent. In a statement to Bloomberg, the FAA said "A 60-month compliance time frame means the risk is low, and does not need to be addressed right away."

Essentially, airlines that operated aircraft with the panels were given five years to inspect and correct the issues noted in the airworthiness directive. Such a timeline shows that the FAA determined that the risk posed by the Honeywell instrument panels was relatively low.

Passenger devices including cell phones have yet to contribute to an incident involving the Honeywell instrument panels. (Image by Jaromir Chalabala / EyeEm / via Getty Images)
Passenger devices including cell phones have yet to contribute to an incident involving the Honeywell instrument panels. (Image by Jaromir Chalabala / EyeEm / via Getty Images)

Most Affected Aircraft Have Been Fixed

Another reason why passengers shouldn't feel the need to turn off their phones when they fly on the Boeing 737 and Boeing 777 is that the number of affected aircraft is remarkably small. According to Honeywell, there are fewer than 70 aircraft featuring three or more of the faulty instrument panels.

Airlines that currently operate aircraft that require corrective action include American Airlines, United and Ryanair.

Bottom Line

Passengers should always adhere to the posted placards, signage and crew member instructions. That includes placing devices into airplane mode. Cellular devices when not placed in airplane mode could potentially interfere with instruments and communication systems. Even then, the risk of mobile devices impacting the systems found on modern aircraft is quite low–even on aircraft featuring the faulty Honeywell instrument panels.

In short, the report initially published by Bloomberg, is for a lack of a better term, clickbait. There has yet to be a confirmed incident involving the Honeywell panels in which mobile devices caused the panels to fail. Additionally, the FAA noted that the panels posed a minimal safety risk when the administration set a 60-month window for airlines and operators to fix the panels.

So, will your cell phone or iPad pose a safety risk on your next flight? As long as you're in airplane mode, no.

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Featured image by LightRocket via Getty Images