Why Should I Have to Worry About Finishing This Post Before We Drop Below 10,000 Feet?


Since I'm not sure whether I'll be able to finish this post before a flight attendant tells us to turn off our electronic devices in preparation for landing, this seems an opportune time to note a recent Wall Street Journal piece that casts further doubt on the policy underlying such instructions. The authors, University of Illinois psychologist Daniel Simons and Union College psychologist Christopher Chabris, conducted a survey of 492 Americans who had flown in the previous year and found that "40% said they did not turn their phones off completely during takeoff and landing on their most recent flight," while "more than 7% left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active," and 2 percent admitted "actively using their phones when they weren't supposed to." The actual numbers are probably higher, since people may be reluctant to confess such naughty behavior. But based on the survey results, Simons and Chabris write, "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."

The fact that routine flouting of the Federal Aviation Administration's rules regarding electronics on airplanes has not led to one disaster after another is hardly surprising, since there was never any real evidence that leaving cellphones, MP3 players, or laptops on interferes with navigation or communication:

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….

Why has the regulation remained in force for so long despite the lack of solid evidence to support it? Human minds are notoriously overzealous "cause detectors." When two events occur close in time, and one plausibly might have caused the other, we tend to assume it did. There is no reason to doubt the anecdotes told by airline personnel about glitches that have occurred on flights when they also have discovered someone illicitly using a device.

But when thinking about these anecdotes, we don't consider that glitches also occur in the absence of illicit gadget use. More important, we don't consider how often gadgets have been in use when flights have been completed without a hitch.

Last month the FAA announced that it plans to appoint a panel of experts charged with examining the empirical basis for its electronics policy, which effectively requires that devices be turned off at altitudes below 10,000 feet. The panel will have six months to study the issue, and even then it sounds like the best travelers can hope for is a slight loosening of the restrictions, which probably would not take effect anytime soon.

The New York Times notes that "the rule was first introduced to stop airborne cellphones from interfering with wireless networks on the ground." It says the FAA "is not considering lifting the prohibition on the use of cellphones [for calls] during flight."  

Made it! 

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  1. I thought after the wireless interference claim was shown to be bunk that the justification for this moved to the idea that crew need passengers’ full attention in case of emergency, which is more likely at take-off and landing.

    1. Then they would tell people to put their books and magazines away.

      1. to be fair, instructions given would be audible and not visual, so books and magazines aren’t huge distractors. And I’m just happy there is a rule that makes certain people stop talking on their cell phone. Its really rude in small spaces.

        I never wait until 10,000 feet to put on my ipod headphones though. Basically once the wheels are off the ground, in go the baby noise eliminators. No one has said a thing ever.

  2. But the error only has to happen once. Therefore, if this policy saves even ONE life….

    1. And I defy you to prove that it hasn’t saved at least ONE life…

  3. The fact that AQ or the like haven’t been able to take out a plane with a suitcase full of powered on cell phones (and I would guess they’ve given that a shot), indicates that there’s no risk.

  4. What’s interesting is the electronics part of this directive wasn’t enforced pre-911. When I used to fly home from college in the late 90s, no one ever told me to turn off my CD/minidisc/mp3 player

  5. The “seats in an upright position” one bugs me more than the electronic devices, anyway. When are they going to explore that issue?

    1. That one is pretty straightforward. If there’s an emergency landing, people need to bend over and brace themselves, which is blocked by a seat that’s leaning back. Also, if people need to evacuate, reclined seats make exit more difficult for the people behind you.

      1. Also, unless it’s actually night time, anyone who puts their seat back on a plane deserves all the worst that life has to offer, including but not limited to flaming herpes.

        1. When I’m on a 5 hour flight across country, my seat is going back. Period. I don’t care where the sun is. Those seats are uncomfortable enough as it is. I don’t need to be practicing my posture while I’m in them.

      2. Most people get this one wrong, even most flight crew. Your reason is half of the equation. The other is that if you are not sitting straight up your seatbelt could become your enemy. Just watch a crash test dummy test and you’ll see that the seatbelt will finally restrain you at your armpits after your legs or knees are crushed.

  6. It says the FAA “is not considering lifting the prohibition on the use of cellphones during flight.”

    Of course not. Why would there ever be consideration of eliminating a pointless rule? What do you think this is, Bizarro-America?

    1. i may have alot of TSA and FAA hate, but whatever reason is needed to justify people stop yammering away on their cells for even a second, I’m for it (turns in decoder ring for the eleventieth time).

      1. I wouldn’t be surprised if some airlines enforced a “headphones only” policy in the absense of TSA rules.

        Of course, they’ll never stop seatmates from talking to one another.

        1. i don’t care if the two people sitting next to me are talking to each other (assuming they are not absurdly loud and obnoxious), but something gets me about a one sided conversation happening right next to me, especially since it seems more often than not to become very intimate and uncomfortable (do people’s filters just turn off when they’re on the phone, like no one else can hear them)?

      2. LIT,

        Keep on hating. In the meantime, if your seat neighbor is yammering, just interrupt his conversation by asking him a series of neurotic questions. Here are some ideas: Hello, please help me! I have only 30 minutes to connect! Did you hear at what gate we are arriving? Try to use a fake Brooklyn accent.
        Or this: Wow. You are a douchebag. I’ve been listening to your entire conversation. You really did that? Really.

  7. at least we know you puny humanoids can follow instructions, however pointless.

  8. I had a flight attendant tell me that using devices doesn’t really interfere but that turning devices on and off creates some static that the pilots can hear. I suggested that if that were actually true but they just let us keep our devices on all the time, that problem would disappear anyway. I don’t know if she’d thought of that before, but she was not terribly amused.

    1. Most flight attendants graduated from high school and felt that they were pretty. This idea is especially rampant among male flight attendants.

      I realize that our high schoos deliver an education bar none, but there is room for the occasional graduate who got by on his/her looks.

  9. I’ve made it a point for as long as I’ve had an iPad to not put it away on takeoff or landing unless/until specifically asked. Sorry, the radios just aren’t strong enough to reach any vital equipment from cattle class.

    1. The best is that one cannot turn off a Kindle (unless, I suppose, you pulled the battery), but I’ve had a flight attendant tell me to. I nodded, waited for her to move, and went back to reading.

      1. the kindle (basic e-ink one) doesn’t even have a backlight, right? Does it even require power when you’re reading a page (as opposed to turning it)?

        1. Well, the WiFi is always going.

          1. Unless you turn it off, at least.

      2. Even when they tell me to turn it off, I just hit the screen off button. I’m not powering down my shit for them. Same with the iPhone. Airplane mode, screen off = “turned off”.

        1. for a while i didn’t even know my Nook was not powered off whenever I hit the screen off button. Now of course I do know, but still use that rather than power it down. I power my phone down though because it has such a hard time finding a signal in the air that it drains the battery fast.

          1. Airplane mode dude.

      3. Epi, you’re truly the genius in this bunch of moronic rhapsody. Pretend you turned your offending machine off and then move on. It just shows me what a bunch of sheep there are out there: our commenters included. Thoreau would be bummed.

  10. Next they’ll make us take our shoes off before entering the plane.

    1. No, during the flight, to make us more like children at nap time.

    2. That’s so Japanese. I bet that would have a calming effect.

    3. At least those kid shoes that flash when you walk.

    4. Yeah right. Then they’d want to take naked pictures of people, right?


    5. You mean our clothes. Naked passengers, rendered unconscious and placed in ejectable pods. No luggage, no nothing. Not even clothes.

        1. Must submit to full cavity search and high power xray to make sure you aren’t hiding anything, also. Don’t worry, it’s harmless. I promise.

          1. Oh, sure. That goes without saying. But they’ll do that after you’re rendered unconscious, so you won’t feel the violation of your rights.

      1. Dude, that was the solution at the end of The Puppet Masters to prevent another invasion. Heinlein thought of it first!

        1. He had people flying naked, without luggage, in pods? Exactly that?

          1. Basically. Don’t question me!

  11. Look, I agree there isn’t a science reason to turn your phone off. But honestly, can you say you want to be trapped next to someone talking on their cell phone? Be honest.

    1. I got stuck on the ground at LGA for 2 hours with this lady next to me who had her volume turned up to 11 and every fucking things she did, including typing, came with a fucking sound. Unfortunately, it was returning from a family wedding, and my mother was just the other side of me. This prevented me from saying things like, “I swear to Christ if you don’t turn the sound off on that thing I am going to cram it right up your fat ass.”

    2. Probably no more than the cell phone talker would want to be trapped next to someone with a sudden, uncontrollable bout of horrible gas.

      1. I was once on a flight sitting behind someone who was releasing some nasty SBDs. Reminded me of the scene in “Step Brothers” where the guy says “I can taste it. On my tongue.”

    3. “This is a non-talking flight.”

    4. If this rule was lifted I imagine most airlines would implement policies around this issue. I might even pay extra to sit in the “be quiet and leave me the fuck alone” section.

  12. the FAA can only say that the devices’ radio signals “may” (or may not!) interfere with flight operations….

    Note that the meaning of this sentence is not changed by the additional words.

    However, the credibility of the speaker may be adversely impacted.

    1. The radios in phones are somewhat strong. The radios in wifi devices are so weak, it is unfathomable to me that even 300 of them in a jumbo jet could cause significant interference with antennae that have no trouble sending and receiving in lightning storms.

      1. I’ve heard interference over the radio when a fellow crewmembers phone was ringing probably due to the proximity to the avionics.
        If you’re navigating around thunderstorms it’s not uncommon to have enough static interference as to make communications difficult.

  13. The rule annoys me but it is so easy to avoid that I can’t get that worked up about it. Just don’t make it obvious when they walk by and then pop your headphones back in as soon as they are far enough away.

    1. Mental note: use headphones when watching porn on Ipad during airplane flight.

    2. Alrighty! Another diamond in the ruff. Why is this so hard?

  14. the rule was first introduced to stop airborne cellphones from interfering with wireless networks on the ground.”

    WTF is the FAA doing passing rules regulating the wireless spectrum, anyway? If this has to be rule, shouldn’t it be an FCC rule?

    1. Good suggestion R C Dean. Getting the FCC directly involved in airline travel is exactly what we need.

      1. On this issue, they couldn’t possibly be any worse.

    2. They are not regulating the wireless spectrum. Just defining what is allowed on passenger airplanes which is entirely within their spectrum.

      For the record, I think the rule is outdated, especially for newer aircraft.

    3. No cellphones on planes is an FCC rule. They are worried about signalling multiple towers while in flight. Traveling on the ground it’s not a problem, you won’t be able to contact that many towers.

  15. Okay as long we’re going to ban shit, I motion the banning of newspapers on airplanes. WTF? An opened newspaper takes up two full seat’s width back in cattle class. And after a couple hours of hearing those pages scrape and crackle around I’m ready to make the guy who’s reading it, eat it.

    Somehow it’s almost always elderly people that just *have* to bring their f’ing newspapers with them on the plane. And there’s nothing else to do so they read more of the newspaper than they probably would at any other time.

    I want an electromagnetic newspaper flash-burn device built into my next smart phone. A proximity of ten feet or so should do the job.

    Meanwhile, nobody has ever shown any clear evidence that phones and computers interfere with airplane signals. But the rule wastes nearly half an hour of your time at take off, and another half hour at landing. So in the name of killing even more productivity, the rule must surely stand.

    But allowing everyone to talk on their cell phones in the air? I got a problem with that. Then I’d have to a cell phone jammer to my next smart phone. Do NOT need to hear everybody talking to their mother all the fucking way from JFK to LA.

  16. The fact is, the original ban on using cell phones on aircraft was requested, not by the FAA, nor by pilots, but by US cell phone companies. The “interfering with wireless networks on the ground” quote refers to the billing systems in cell phone towers not being able to bill customers correctly for calls when the cell phone was in contact with too many towers. When people started questioning why other electronic devices were OK, when cell phones were banned, those were banned too – even though walkmen and radios had been used for decades without incident. This is why mobile phone use is perfectly acceptable to the airlines when a pico-cell billing system is installed in the aircraft.
    Mobile phones, like all other electronic devices, carry an FCC certification that: “This device complies with Part 15 of the FCC rules. Operation is subject to the following two conditions: (1) this device may not cause harmful interference, and (2) this device must accept any interference received, including interference that may cause undesired operation.” The electronics and navigation systems in all aircraft are also certified under this rule.
    A few years ago I conducted an extensive search of the FAA incident database, and was unable to identify a single “incident” that involved a mobile phone or other electronic device.

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