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!