Phoney Fear Of Phones And Flying

Alex Baldwin might finally be able to play Words With Friends without being hassled. For over 20 years, airline passengers in the U.S. have been required to turn off personal electronic devices during takeoffs and landings. The evidence behind this ban was always thin and evidence against it is accumulating. Now the Federal Aviation Administration is seeking public comment on whether it should end the policy.

The Federal Aviation Administration is seeking public comment on its longstanding policy banning the use of personal electronic devices by passengers during takeoffs and landings (PDF). The FAA also is forming a government-industry group to study the effect of these devices and whether they can be used safely in flight.

The study is reasonable in the abstract, but in fact we have lots of indirect evidence that the use of such devices is not harmful. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, psychology professors Daniel Simons And Christopher F. Chabris of the University of Illinois and Union College, respectively, discuss a survey they conducted of 492 American adults who have flown in the past year.

Forty percent 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 [Alec] Baldwin, actively using their phones when they weren't supposed to.
Simons and Chabris are the authors of "The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us."

The implication of the survey results is that the supposed problems that the restrictions are designed to prevent are imagined. Many devices are on during takeoffs and landings, some in active use, all the time over many years, and planes aren't falling out of the sky. Combined with the absence of positive evidence that they interfere with communications or navigation, it's hard to make a case for the restrictions based on anything other than inertia.

Alec Baldwin kicked off plane
Baldwin was kicked off an American Airlines flight for refusing to stop playing Words With Friends on his phone.
I usually fly on United, which doesn't have Wi-Fi; that, combined with the ban and the fact that my enormous MacBook Pro doesn't fit on the tray table, gives me the excuse to blow off work and read during flights. (I usually use a Kindle, but under the ban I have to turn that off, too, during takeoff and landing.)

Speaking of takeoff and landing, some of the portable electronic device (PED) rules fail the common sense test. Why, for example, must you turn off electronics on departure as soon as door to the plane is shut, but after you land you can use them, even making phone calls, while taxiing to the gate? Is taxiing from the gate somehow more sensitive to interference than taxiing to the gate?

Much as I'd like to keep my excuse for not working on planes, it's better public policy to let people use these devices if there's no harm in it. Productivity aside, they're great for keeping impatient kids--and grownups--calm during a long flight. A more reasonable policy on this matter and Alec Baldwin's good name might have been saved.

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