Science Addiction

A dormant blog by Devanshu Mehta

Tag: tsa

Faulty Avionics Caused Qantas Jet Dive- not Wireless Mouse!

Turns out it wasn’t a random passenger clicking in morse code that caused the Qantas jet to dive [via BBC]:

The ATSB said its inquiries had found a fault in a computer unit that detects the angle at which the plane is flying.

Somehow I’d suspected it wouldn’t be consumer electronics. Of course, the fact that they even considered it means that something is wrong.

More on Wireless Devicess on Airplanes

Yesterdays story about Australian officials blaming a wireless mouse and other consumer electronics for severe problems in their avionics left me very confused. Either they were looking for an easy scapegoat or there is something seriously wrong with airline security.

In 2004, the FCC was considering lifting the ban on wireless devices in airplanes. However, in March of 2007 the FCC terminated that effort. This was their statement:

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules prohibit the use of cellular phones using the 800 MHz frequency and other wireless devices on airborne aircraft. This ban was put in place because of potential interference to wireless networks on the ground. […]

The FCC determined that the technical information provided by interested parties in response to the proposal was insufficient to determine whether in-flight use of wireless devices on aircraft could cause harmful interference to wireless networks on the ground. Therefore, it decided at this time to make no changes in the rules prohibiting in-flight use of such devices.

The question is- in an environment where 4 ounces of liquid are deemed unsafe for travel, you would think the heavy-handed TSA would have banned cell phones and wireless mice a long time ago.

I’m not suggesting that they do that- in fact, I want someone to call Qantas and the Australian Transport Safety Board’s bluff. Or prove them right and take the entire airline industry down- because which suit wants to travel without their cell phone, laptop or PDA?

(Also: Scienceline investigates why you have to turn off your iPod at take off and landing.)

Coming Soon: Terrorist Armed with a Wireless Mouse

There is something wrong with this report, though I’m not sure what it is:

Passenger laptop computers are now being investigated as a possible cause of the Qantas mid-air emergency off Western Australia on Tuesday.

The Airbus A330-300, with 303 passengers and a crew of 10, experienced what the airline described as a “sudden change in altitude” north of its destination on Tuesday.

The mid-air incident resulted in injuries to 74 people, with 51 of them treated by three hospitals in Perth for fractures, lacerations and suspected spinal injuries when the flight bound from Singapore to Perth had a dramatic drop in altitude that hurled passengers around the cabin.

In July, a passenger clicking on a wireless mouse mid-flight was blamed for causing a Qantas jet to be thrown off course, according to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s monthly report.

Can modern airplane electronics be so dramatically affected by wireless mice and laptops? If so, the airline industry is doomed- forget about taking off your shoes and all your 3oz liquid bottles in little ziploc baggies. The real threat is in every business traveler’s carry-on luggage.

Of course, there is something wrong here. I am not quite sure what- but either the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau is looking for an easy scapegoat or there is a gaping security hole in our airlines that should be bigger news. I’m guessing it’s the former.

There is some interesting discussion in this slashdot thread, including the following from “pla”:

This has nothing to do with “I want to use my laptop/DS/phone, so make me happy as the paying customer”, and everything to do with “if an unauthorized wireless mouse can bring down a plane, we need the entire fleet of such badly defective planes grounded and fixed yesterday“.

Seriously. Any system that can’t deal with weak RF interference needs to hit the scrapheap. In any other industry, we’d see the customers suing – Imagine if Ford said using a bluetooth headset in their vehicles violates your warranty… They’d go bankrupt overnight. Only the fact that the aviation industry has slowly boiled the frog, making us expect horrible customer service at unpredictable (but high) prices, allows any of the BS we’ve put up with for the past 20 years (and the shout-and-taze squads aside, the airlines had problems long before 9/11).

Well said.

UPDATE: A little more info from the FCC. Still doesn’t resolve anything.

UPDATE #2: Turns out it was faulty avionics, not passenger laptops, that caused the dive. No kidding.