So are you guilty? Like thousands of others, have you snuck an extra text, Tweet or talk after flight attendants decreed you shut off all electronic devices? Or did you continue playing Words With Friends, like Alec Baldwin? No big deal, right? Well, maybe — but maybe not.
Since 2012, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) panel has been studying the effects of portable electronic devices onboard commercial planes. The findings are due on Monday, but news reports indicate the panel will recommend that e-books, podcasts and videos be allowed at all times on U.S. airlines, while the bans on e-mails, texting, wi-fi and cell phones during departure and arrival will remain.
There’s no question that violating the current FAA ban is ubiquitous. A survey by the Consumer Electronics Association in May found that 30% of airline passengers accidently left a device turned on during takeoff, findings that were forwarded to the FAA. But this is a bit like consulting the Tobacco Institute over the ban on smoking in airplane lavatories. And the fact that people already violate the ban is not a good reason in and of itself to relax it.
The FAA has stated there are “still unknowns” about radio signals emitted by personal electronic devices (PEDs) and they “may unintentionally affect aircraft communications, navigation, flight control and electronic equipment.” Yet clearly many passengers side with Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who says restrictions “are inconvenient to travelers, don’t make sense and lack a scientific basis.”
The squabbles over that “scientific basis” make the disputes about climate change look tame; experts disagree over further testing and whether suspected close calls were anomalies or omens. But safety isn’t the only issue. Think what a partial lifting of this ban will mean: during takeoff and landing, statistically the most dangerous phases of your flight, some devices will be acceptable and others will not. Policing electronic toys will be one more task assigned to overworked and underpaid flight attendants, and if you think air rage is palpable now, wait until the guy in 24D is told to stop texting while the dudes in 24C and 24E watch videos and listen to podcasts. Do you really want to be in a middle seat for six hours while your seatmate breaks up with her boyfriend via Skype?
Since domestic-airline cabins are fuller than they’ve been at any time since World War II, and baggage fees have made the fight for overhead-bin space look like roller derby, allowing more gadget use will only exacerbate the incivility of flying. I’ve spoken to flight attendants worried about uttering more “turn-that-off-or-we’re-going-back-to-the-gate” threats, as well as passengers dreading the lucrative expansion of the airborne cell-phone market.
Moreover, a partial lifting of the ban will encourage use of all electronics in airline cabins, from the moment boarding begins. And while some scientists may be O.K. with tablets and readers rather than phones because of how such transmissions may affect the cockpit, these battles shouldn’t be fought on the front lines — in airplane cabins where proven safety procedures can save lives. “I don’t have time to argue the whys and hows of the policy,” says Heather Poole, a flight attendant and author of Cruising Attitude. “The press never mentions how these PEDs might affect evacuating quickly when time is critical.” Since departures and arrivals are so critical (most fatal accidents do not occur during the “cruise” portion), and since even the worst crashes have become increasingly survivable, the need for all passengers to stay alert and aware is critical. It’s not the time for one more Tweet.