Perth (Australia) – Australian air safety officials believe laptops could have caused a passenger jet to suddenly gain and lose altitude. Earlier this week, Qantas flight QF72 was flying from Singapore to Perth when it quickly climbed 300 feet and then plunged back down. Dozens of passengers were injured as they slammed their heads into the ceiling and the pilot had to divert to a nearby air force base for an emergency landing. Now, Qantas and the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau think laptops could have interfered with the auto pilot system.
Flight QF72 was an Airbus A330-300 with 303 passengers and ten crew members. The plane was cruising at 37000 feet and passengers report that the flight was initially quite smooth, but at 1 PM they were thrown around the cabin. The seatbelt sign wasn’t lit at the time and passengers were free to walk about the cabin. One passenger said he slammed into the ceiling and then hung there for about two seconds before slamming back down into the floor. Such a report certainly sounds consistent with a sudden altitude change.
The plane landed at Learmonth Air Force base in Western Australia and 40 people were transported to local hospitals, 14 of those passengers had serious spinal and bone injuries. Safety investigators have traced the problem to a malfunction in the autopilot’s elevator control system and believe errant laptop signals might have fed incorrect information to the computers. The ATSB is now asking passengers if they were using any electronic devices during the incident.
This isn’t the first time in-flight electronics have possibly ruined a flight. Back in July, Qantas and the ATSB blamed a wireless mouse for throwing another jet off course. There have been anecdotal reports from airline pilots in the United States of handheld game consoles causing malfunctions in the navigation system, but most of these problems have been difficult to replicate.
Flight QF72’s drastic altitude oscillation was initially blamed on turbulence. Qantas has apologized to all the passengers and has refunded the airfare along with giving an additional round-trip voucher.