As I waited for my plane to take off Sunday morning, coming back from Thanksgiving vacation, I was listening to music on my iPod. We had been waiting on the runway for 25 minutes and I was bored, tired, and roasting hot. I needed to distract myself. But then, before I knew it, it was apparently time to take off. Without warning, the stewardess came from the back of the plane, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “SIR, you have to turn it off now. SIR. SIR.”

Like I do every time I fly, I took off my headphones until the flight attendant walked away. Then I put them back on. I also never turned off my cell phone or put it in airplane mode.

You probably know this is not allowed. Airplane passengers are supposed to turn off all electronic devices for takeoff and landing.

But WHY? Is aviation safety so delicate that a few Kindles or iPads endanger hundreds of lives? I don’t think so. A New York Times article from Monday takes a look at this mysterious, anachronistic facet of America’s law of the skies….

Nick Bilton starts out by setting up some numerical perspective. I’m proud to say that I’m part of the one percent:

According to the F.A.A., 712 million passengers flew within the United States in 2010. Let’s assume that just 1 percent of those passengers — about two people per Boeing 737, a conservative number — left a cellphone, e-reader or laptop turned on during takeoff or landing. That would mean seven million people on 11 million flights endangered the lives of their fellow passengers.

Yet, in 2010, no crashes were attributed to people using technology on a plane. None were in 2009. Or 2008, 2007 and so on. You get the point.

Surely if electronic gadgets could bring down an airplane, you can be sure that the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, which has a consuming fear of 3.5 ounces of hand lotion and gel shoe inserts, wouldn’t allow passengers to board a plane with an iPad or Kindle, for fear that they would be used by terrorists.

The more I fly, the less I like takeoff and landing. They are the loudest, bumpiest, and statistically most risky parts of the flight. Keeping the tunes going is important for keeping nerves at bay.

Not that personal comfort matters to the Federal Aviation Administration. To justify the rule, an FAA spokesperson pointed at times to a 2006 study by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics. Apparently the survey was incredibly dull pretty groundbreaking:

Its finding? “Insufficient information to support changing the policies,” Mr. Dorr said. “There was no evidence saying these devices can’t interfere with a plane, and there was no evidence saying that they can.”

Mm-hmm. Sounds like they had a crack team of savvy researchers working day and night to solve this problem. Flipping a coin would have been more useful.

I have a close relative who has been a pilot for a major airline for many years. Even he recently told me the rule is bogus. His reasons mirrored what Michael Altschul, senior vice president and legal counsel for CTIA, the wireless industry association, told the Times: namely, that aviation radio frequencies are separate from commercial, and that aircraft wiring and instruments are shielded from commercial wireless interference.

What’s particularly frustrating about the takeoff-and-landing rule is that airline staff — at least publicly — don’t seem to acknowledge how silly it is. Why do they have to be so mean about it? When I was on a family vacation as a teenager, a flight attendant threatened to kick my dad off a plane because he didn’t hear her tell him to turn off his PalmPilot. I can only assume the attendant was worried my father would stab someone with his stylus.

A clear and present danger? I think not.

I know national security is important. The laws have to be strict for a reason (so they tell us). But airline officials already like to cup our balls and make fun of passengers’ sex toys. Can’t the law catch up with technology enough so that we can at least listen to a little music or read a freaking (electronic) book without being hassled?

Disruptions: Fliers Must Turn Off Devices, but It’s Not Clear Why [New York Times]


Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He covers legal technology and the West Coast for Above the Law. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at cdanzig@gmail.com. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.


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