Why I Won’t Turn Off My Gadgets on Planes

I have a problem with following rules that don't make any sense, like the FAA rule that we must turn off all electronic devices on planes

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There’s a small act of rebellion that I indulge in whenever I’m on an airplane. I don’t turn off my iPhone or iPod during takeoff and landing. And if I’m tucked away in a window seat where the flight attendants can’t see me, I actually use them. Emails and texts start coming in as the plane descends. Why do I do this? Because I have a problem with following rules that don’t make any sense, and the rule that we must turn off all electronic devices during the beginning and end of the flight makes no sense to me.

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The oft-stated reason for the ban on using electronic devices — “anything with on/off switch” as the flight attendants say — during takeoff and landing is that transmissions could interfere with the crucial navigational instruments in the cockpit. I can’t buy that. But even if we accept that, the explanation only covers phones and devices that send out signals — so why are passengers not allowed to use devices that do not send out signals, like iPods and e-readers? Why are we not allowed to use devices that send out signals if they are in airplane mode?

I once asked a flight attendant why this rule was in place, and in a quiet voice she admitted that there was no chance of throwing off the plane’s radar. She said it was really about making sure everyone’s paying attention. Um, ok, then why are we allowed to read books or sleep at the edges of a flight? It may also be about rules that have long been in place staying there because some security mavens think that if there’s a minuscule chance of a cell phone screwing with a pilot’s job then why allow it to happen? But studies struggle to prove a link between device use and system failure. A five-year study by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics found no conclusive data proving devices can interfere with airplane systems.

My unscientific study has proven that passenger devices do not adversely impact flights — we all know I’m not the only one with my phone on during takeoff and landing, purposely or accidentally. Many airlines in Europe, Asia and the Middle East allow passengers to use phones freely during flight as do most small private planes. And the most important plane in America, Air Force One, does not require presidential staff or reporters to turn off their devices for takeoff and landing. So don’t insult my intelligence by telling me that using my iPod could impact the pilot’s job.

Nick Bilton of the New York Times is leading the cause on this important issue with a series of articles revealing the ridiculousness of these rules. According to his research our devices send out so few microvolts that the amount of interference is infinitesimal and inconsequential. A veteran pilot once told ABC News that an airplane’s electronic systems are, “heavily shielded. Stray signals cannot get into those systems.” That leaves no good reason why cell phones should be turned off during a flight. Except for the perpetuation of the kabuki theater that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) puts on, aka Security Theater. So I’m going to continue my little tradition of civil disobedience, keeping my phone on after they tell me to put it “in the off position,” (language that never fails to grate).

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Call me a rebel without a cause if you like but I have a cause — the need to be distracted. I don’t want to be forced to listen to other people’s phone conversations because we’re inches away on a plane, but I also don’t want my plane neighbors making idle conversation with me because their minds are restless without their e-reader. I want passengers to be able to use devices that do not send out signals or devices that are in airplane mode because it’s important for maintaining sanity while dealing with the trauma of the modern flight experience.

In dealing with airlines we are customers, but we are barely given the respect of customers. The airplane experience has become so arduous — from the strip search and feel-up of the TSA to the curt rudeness of airline employees to the loss of amenities that have turned flying from something fun and sexy into a depressing ride on an airbus that you just try to get through. After getting molested by the TSA, making my way through a long line filled with annoyed people and snuggling into a tiny seat, the last thing I need is to be cut off from my iPhone and iPod and left alone with my thoughts. Thoughts like, I wish I’d stayed at home.