Do Our Gadgets Really Threaten Planes?

An article by two psych professors in the WSJ today suggests what most of us who fly frequently already know about our electronic gadgets supposedly threatening plane flights – they don’t.


WAS ALEC BALDWIN RIGHT? When the actor tussled with American Airlines personnel last December over his desire to continue playing a game on his phone during takeoff, he was evicted from the flight. Defying airline safety rules is not a good idea, but was Baldwin perhaps correct not to take the danger seriously?

On Aug. 31, the Federal Aviation Administration requested public comment on its longstanding policy of prohibiting the use of personal electronics during takeoffs and landings. The restrictions date back to 1991 and were motivated in part by anecdotal reports from pilots and flight crews that electronic devices affected an airliner’s navigation equipment or disrupted communication between the cockpit and the ground. Over the years, however, Boeing has been unable to duplicate these problems, and the FAA can only say that the devices’ radio signals “may” interfere with flight operations.

To gather some empirical evidence on this question, we recently conducted an online survey of 492 American adults who have flown in the past year. In this sample, 40% said they did not turn their phones off completely during takeoff and landing on their most recent flight; more than 7% left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active. And 2% pulled a full Baldwin, actively using their phones when they weren’t supposed to.

Consider what these numbers imply. The odds that all 78 of the passengers who travel on an average-size U.S. domestic flight have properly turned off their phones are infinitesimal: less than one in 100 quadrillion, by our rough calculation. If personal electronics are really as dangerous as the FAA rules suggest, navigation and communication would be disrupted every day on domestic flights. But we don’t see that.


Okay, so what do we do if the mega-nannies at the FAA don’t finally do what they should have years ago and cancel this regulation? Civil disobedience? Imagine if every passenger on a plane refused to turn their iPhone off. The stewardesses… excuse me, cabin attendants… would go batty. Good movie scene for Jack Nicholson, no? Hey, maybe I’ll write it.

But this absurd rule does have a weird upside. It’s the only time these days that I ever read a newspaper in dead tree form. I buy one (almost always a WSJ, the only domestic paper even faintly worth the price) before I get on the plane to have something to read for those twenty minutes before I can use my iPad. If they void this rule, I’ll never read a printed newspaper again. Ah, well, maybe that’s not so bad. One less trip to the airplane lavatory necessary to wash the ink off my hands.



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