Speculation Qantas plunge caused by wireless iPod headphones

Or not.

Like wine chocolate red meat caffeine and mobile phone usage public sentiment about life’s little vices varies considerably depending on the phase of the moon and the rate at which news trickles into media outlets.

One day it’s perfectly OK to wash down a nice tender beef sirloin with a bottle of 1998 cabsauv chocolate fondue and double espresso whilst negotiating a business deal with your supplier in Shanghai. The next some boffin in a lab on the other side of the world eager to make a name for himself in academia publishes a story saying that such behaviour causes cancer flatulence and global warming.

Apart from a few stray issues with heat melting batteries and flames however notebook computers have luckily escaped the brunt of this fair-weather optimism. They are many peoples’ lifelines to the world their unflinching companions on otherwise unendurable trans-continental flights – yet for some reason they were mentioned during coverage of the sudden descent of Qantas flight 72 on Tuesday.

Authorities initially blamed the terrifying incident on a “malfunctioning flight control system or the auto-pilot control system” but on Thursday morning this transmogrified into an SMH story with the headline “Speculation laptop use caused Qantas flight plunge“. Interestingly the story actually contradicted its own headline in the first paragraph noting that “Air safety investigators say it is too early to blame passenger laptop computers for causing a Qantas jet to abruptly nose dive on a flight from Singapore to Perth.” It’s a wonder the SMH didn’t find a way to work Sarah Palin Obama Paris Hilton and leaked pictures of Apple Brick notebooks into the story to drive traffic up further.

Facts hardly matter in today’s global news world though: within the hour the notebook element had spread like wildfire: Bloomberg picked it up as did our friends across the Tasman. The UK Daily Mail expanded the hit list by mentioning “the possibility that wireless signals from a laptop or a child’s game could have interfered with the autopilot”.

By the day’s end a Google search for “Qantas plunge laptop” was returning 19800 hits and by Friday morning the number was up to 20300.

Vladimir Lenin is credited with saying “a lie told often enough becomes truth”. This adage was in full swing here as Australia’s own schadenfreude central news.com.au reinforced its story with a reference to an event in which “a passenger clicking a wireless mouse mid-flight recently sent a Qantas jumbo jet off course on a three-degree bank”.

This event apparently covered in Brisbane’s Courier Mail in July was taken as fact in many of the news reports of this week’s incident. Yet today even the NZ Herald was setting the facts straight quoting an ATSB spokesman as saying “I don’t know where that report came from”.

Call it fearmongering call it click-whoring call it whatever you like but this is just one in a long string of examples showing how eager the media is to breathlessly blame technology when things go wrong. It’s the press equivalent of that famous video where the guy gets irritated because he can’t get the computer to work.

Yes I bet some passengers were using notebooks when the plane did its thing. I’ll also bet that many of those notebooks ended up in smithereens after colliding with the plane’s roof at high speed. But to automatically assume they caused the autopilot to go haywire? It’s great to attract clicks but is totally invented fabricated speculation at this point. The sites could just as easily have run a story with the headline “Malicious alien gremlins link to Qantas plunge”.

There has been much speculation about wireless signals interfering with plane systems – most broadly evident in the long-running ban on mobile phone use on planes. However the past year or so has seen many airlines – including Qantas – relaxing those rules; just a few weeks ago Qantas confirmed its soon-to-take-off Airbus A380 would include Internet services from OnAir and AeroMobile technology to support mobile phones onboard. (It has recently postponed the inflight internet plans on the A380 but not due to technological problems.)

Indeed it seems that the worst thing about using mobile phones onboard planes is the nuisance it causes to neighbouring passengers – reason enough to keep them banned IMHO. But when people start suggesting that even a battery-powered wireless mouse – which emits an extremely weak low-powered signal with about a 2m radius – could affect a plane’s navigation systems well it comes off as the stuff of urban legends.

Now airplane security is well-known for being strict; heck I can’t even get a nail clipper onboard these days. Something in me just knows that airplane authorities have been testing this stuff; if notebooks posed a real threat to onboard systems they would have been banned long ago. Ditto handheld gaming systems which nowadays include wireless capabilities with a range of around 10m.

Passenger jets are built with about a dozen levels of failsafe protection in place – redundant systems are common key systems and indeed the entire plane is designer for protection from lightning and higher levels of ambient radiation at altitude.

In fact Boeing’s Marc Birtel told APC in 2006 that the aircraft manufacturer had been telling airlines for years that use of cellphones and WiFi on planes was perfectly safe — but government regulators fearful of public backlash over introducing any perceived risk into air travel whatsoever were the ones who were unprepared to give any ground.

So are we really meant to believe that a small wireless mouse broadcasting at 900MHz or whatever in a 2m radius at a few milliwatts is enough to circumvent all these protections? Or that a speculated laptop could be emitting enough ambient RF to stuff up a plane’s altimeter?

Can anyone — especially those irresponsible journalists creating unnecessary fear about air safety — offer up even the smallest shred of evidence that an electronic device being used by a passenger on board has had any provable effect on an airplane?

Is it time to call Mythbusters yet? Or maybe Slashdot has already covered it well enough.

The evidence around interference of electronic devices with plane systems is nearly as sketchy as the evidence supporting Creationism or the idea that light beer can taste as good as regular beer – but it gets loads of air time and clickthroughs simply because people love a good conspiracy theory. Wargames has a lot to answer for.