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 nine to switch off an Apple iPhone.
"The timing of the cellphone 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 Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to actor Alec Baldwin have bristled at what they say are excessive rules restricting use of tablets, smartphones, laptops and other devices during flights.
A DECADE OF SCARY REPORTS
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 aviation 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.
Laboratory tests have shown some devices broadcast radio waves powerful enough to interfere with airline equipment, according to NASA, aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. and the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority.
Even Delta Air Lines Inc., 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.
AIRLINE INDUSTRY DIVIDED
The airline industry has been divided. Delta said in its filing that it welcomes more electronics use because that's what its passengers wanted. United Continental Holdings Inc. 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 Inc., the Seattle online retailer that sells the Kindle e-reader, urged the FAA last year to allow wider use of devices. Personal electronics don't cause interference, CTIA said in a blog post last year.
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, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group, said in its filing to the FAA last year.
WI-FI AND BROADBAND
Broader use of onboard electronics would help providers of approved aircraft Wi-Fi services by letting passengers use them longer. Gogo Inc., based in Itasca, Ill., says it has 82 percent of that market in North America, and Qualcomm Inc. this month won permission from the FCC to proceed with a planned air-to-ground broadband service for Wi-Fi-equipped planes.
The FAA prohibits use of electronics while a plane is below 10,000 feet, with the exception of portable recording devices, hearing aids, heart pacemakers and electric shavers.
Once a flight gets above that altitude, devices can be used in "airplane mode," which blocks their ability to broadcast radio signals, according to the FAA. There's an exception for devices that aircraft manufacturers or an airline demonstrates are safe, such as laptops that connect to approved Wi-Fi networks.
Four in 10 airline passengers surveyed in December by groups including the CEA said they want to be able to use electronic devices in all phases of flight. Thirty percent of passengers in that same study said they'd accidentally left on a device during a flight.