AVmail: January 27, 2010
Letter of the Week: GPS Interference
Your story about concerns over the use of personal/portable electronic devices aboard aircraft echoes my own concerns. About five years ago, I was called in to diagnose a problem with two GPS receivers in a non-aviation application. The antennae were located about 30 feet apart on a roof with good sky-view; however, one receiver could not see any satellites.
The cable, antenna and receiver had all been changed with no effect. After some investigation, I tried turning off the GPS unit that was working, and, lo and behold, the "faulty" unit started to work again. More detailed investigation revealed that the antenna amplifier in the "working" system had a fault which allowed it to continue to work apparently normally, but which caused the antenna to radiate a GPS jamming signal that affected other nearby receivers.
Now, imagine if the faulty unit was not fixed to a building but was carried by a passenger aboard a commercial airliner. It would appear to work perfectly, but it could easily affect any GPS units carried as part of the aircraft's avionics.
When permitting the use of passenger electronic devices aboard aircraft, it is imperative that we consider not only the normal operating mode of such equipment but also any likely fault modes, including operator error. Does the "flight safe" mode of a cell phone actually work as advertised? Is the wi-fi in your laptop working only on the permitted frequencies?
Furthermore, in the event of unexplained malfunctions of the aircraft avionics during a Cat-1 autoland, will there be time to make a PA call asking passengers to make sure everything is turned off? And will they listen? Just two days ago, I watched three separate flight attendants on their way to their "seats for landing" walk past a man sending text messages on his iPhone.
The article about the Southwest Airlines captain who held the flight for the bereaved grandfather does not surprise me. Years ago, when I was dating my husband, who is from New Orleans, I had flown down from Dallas for the four-day Mardi Gras weekend. We never attend Mardi Gras; rather, we take that four-day weekend and go somewhere else like the Bahamas.
I was booked on a flight back to Dallas early on Wednesday morning after Fat Tuesday. Not being from New Orleans and having never experienced Mardi Gras, I did not anticipate the long security lines at the airport. When I arrived at the airport an hour prior to my flight, it was apparent that I would never make it through security in time to make my flight.
When I finally made it through the security checkpoint, it was 10 minutes after the scheduled departure of my Southwest flight. I ran to the gate just in case, and the Captain was standing at the counter. He said they knew the lines were long and so he held the flight for those of us who couldn't get through security in a timely manner. He said, "Slow down; the flight can't leave without me."
I was so thankful he had done that. It was a 7am flight, and my plan was to make it to work on time in Dallas without my boss knowing I had flown in that morning! Thank you, Southwest captain, for holding that flight for me.
Another time Southwest went above and beyond was on Christmas Day 2000. I was booked on a flight from Little Rock back to Dallas. There was a terrible ice storm moving across, and I left early for the airport to try to miss the ice and catch an earlier flight back to Dallas. I didn't make it. The ice was already very bad by the time I got to the Little Rock airport. I barely made it into the parking lot with my rental car, slipping and sliding all the way, and, just after I arrived, the airport closed.
The Little Rock gate security people were not going to allow us to stay in the gate area where it was warm and where we had adequate seating. They said we had to stay by baggage claim. Baggage claim was right next to the outside doors. It was freezing cold there, and there were no chairs. This is where Southwest Airlines came in to help. Southwest got the Little Rock airport security to agree to allow us to stay in the gate area and Southwest would pay for the cost of security for that area. Then the flight attendants brought us pillows and blankets off the airplane. There were no restaurants open at the airport, so they also brought us all the snack packs they had on the airplane.
The ice storm got worse. I spent two nights (Christmas night and the next) stranded at the Little Rock airport. Then, on the final morning, the Southwest gate agent gave all 38 of us standby boarding passes for the first flight out. I cannot say enough about how good the Southwest flight crew and gate personnel were to all of us. They really took care of us as best they could under the circumstances. Southwest Airlines is the best in my book.
The article "'First World' Airlines Fatality-Free" is incorrect. On Sept. 3, 2010, UPS Flight 6 Dubai to Cologne crashed 20 minutes after take-off. Both crew members, Doug Lampe and Matt Bell, friends of mine, were killed after their B747-400 experienced a fire in the cargo area. I know this was not a passenger flight, but passenger carriers also carry items with lithium-ion batteries, which are being investigated as the cause of the fire and crash.
The families of our lost crew members do not think 2010 was a "fatality-free" year, and it should not be reported as such.
Point taken. We changed our story to reflect the concerns of Tom and others who contacted us. UPS is the eighth largest airline in the U.S., and the flight in question was carried out under Part 121.
Wait a minute. The plane that crashed in Smolensk was not an airliner; it was a Polish air force transport. It does not belong in the airline crash statistics!
Jean Claude Dispaux
Mea culpa again.