We're now officially in the midst of what marketers like to call "the holiday season," and for many of us, that means traveling to see friends and family.
While we can all agree that the ideal way to do that is to rent a Lamborghini and tear ass across the country, ignoring every speed limit along the way, that just isn't feasible for most folks. This relegates us to the most degrading form of transportation possible: airline travel.
At its best, traveling on a major airline is just tolerable. At its worst, it's one of the most miserable experiences imaginable, a descent into a hell filled with long lines, lost luggage, bad food, canceled flights, howling children, invasive security measures, and thuggish TSA agents who think they're cops.
And once you're packed into your tiny airplane seat like a sausage about to be sent to market, you have to suffer one last indignity: "Please turn off all electronic devices during takeoff."
This one gets on my nerves the most, mainly because it's just plain bullshit. Can you name three examples of airplanes crashing because someone didn't turn off their iPad? How about one? Didn't think so.
Policies set up by most airlines require you to turn off your devices during takeoff until the plane reaches an altitude of 10,000 feet, and to do the same during landing. The use of cell phones for calling during flight has been banned by the Federal Communications Commission since the early 1990s.
But does keeping your cell phone, laptop or Kindle on really impact the plane's radio and electronics systems? That's debatable. The Wall Street Journal had this report earlier this year:
Indeed, there's no firm scientific evidence that having gadgets powered up for takeoff and landing would cause a problem, only that there's the potential for a problem.
The Federal Aviation Administration allows pilots to use iPads and other electronic devices to replace charts and manuals in the cockpit, powered up during takeoff and landing. But the FAA says it can't test all the different gadgets passengers may bring on board. The agency worries a multitude of devices could pose more danger than a single iPad for pilots.
A-HA! So the pilots can do it, but we can't? I knew this was some kind of Sky Law scam. It gets even worse:
Crews have anecdotally reported numerous issues linked to computers or devices on board, such as erroneous warnings on collision-avoidance systems, heavy static on radio frequencies and false readings on instrument landing systems, according to NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System, a database to which crews submit voluntary incident reports.
In some instances, crews caught passengers talking on a phone or using a computer when they weren't supposed to. The crews were able to end interference by shutting down the device. Turning it back on recreated the problem, suggesting a possible link. (Even if you are far from the cockpit, you may be sitting near an antenna.) But attempts to duplicate interference with cockpit gear in laboratories failed.
So you have anecdotal evidence that this is a problem, but no solid scientific data to back it up. The FAA says this:
There are still unknowns about the radio signals that portable electronic devices (PEDs) and cell phones give off. These signals, especially in large quantities and emitted over a long time, may unintentionally affect aircraft communications, navigation, flight control and electronic equipment.
Basically, airlines are erring on the side of caution. It's unlikely that you reading on your iPad, listening to music on your iPhone or playing your Game Gear (or whatever it is the kids play these days) is going to cause the plane to crash. But since there are so many electronic devices out there, and there's no real way to test how each one will affect the plane, it's simply easier to ask everyone to turn them off.
Now, before you go saying, "Why can't you just turn off your device for 10 minutes?", note that that isn't my issue here. It's that the rule isn't very well explained, and that it always comes off as more of a demand than a request. The flight crew makes it seem like your iPhone is going to cause a fiery plunge into the ocean, and that's just extremely unlikely. It doesn't seem based in scientific fact, and it's one more irritation on top of many others involved with flying. (Don't even get me started on the other passengers who chime in and tell you to turn your stuff off. Just shut the fuck up read your James Patterson book, old lady.)
But they may be easing up on that rule soon. In August, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it was initiating a review of its policies related to electronic device use, possibly softening — but not lifting — some of those regulations. Reports the New York Times:
Their mission will be to figure out whether electronic devices can cause interference with the cockpit and when to allow their use without compromising safety. The F.A.A. said it was not considering lifting the prohibition on the use of cellphones during flight.
"We're looking for information to help air carriers and operators decide if they can allow more widespread use of electronic devices in today's aircraft," Michael P. Huerta, the F.A.A.'s acting director, said in a statement. "We also want solid safety data to make sure tomorrow's aircraft designs are protected from interference."
People are sick of the rule, though, and they're rightfully becoming increasingly skeptical of it. Just this month, Missouri Senator Clare McCaskill threatened the FAA with legislation that could mandate the use of electronics "during the full duration of the flight," reports the Times.
Remember also that federal law says you have to comply with the crew's instructions on a plane, lest you face fines or jail time. So to answer the question I asked in my headline, yes, we do have to turn off our devices, but there's no legitimate reason that we should be forced to.
If these changes are not happening soon enough for you, check out this guide Gizmodo put together a few months ago on how to use your device secretly and get away with it.