Disputed Regulation of Electronic Devices Stokes Conflict on Commercial Flights

In Flight WiFiStories of bad behavior by airline passengers regularly make the news, but the most common kind of passenger misconduct doesn’t get widely reported (unless, perhaps, it’s perpetrated by a celebrity). Directives to turn off electronic devices or to cease in-flight cell phone use are easily the biggest causes of confrontations between flight crews and airline customers today, with many passengers questioning the need for such rules.

That probably comes as no surprise, given the pervasiveness of electronic technology for personal and business telecommunications, consumption of media and data and entertainment. Mobile connectivity is so taken for granted that when many of us balk when we’re faced with the prospect of being cut off from our gadgets for hours.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, American Airlines flight attendants alone reported more than 1,300 passenger incidents in 2011, an increase from 2010. The vast majority of passenger disputes at American these days, as at every other air carrier, revolve around fliers’ insistence on using electronic technology when it’s forbidden.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s requirements to power down electronic devices during takeoff and landing are especially galling to those who believe that they pose no real danger to safe operation of the aircraft. In fact, the FAA now lets pilots keep iPads loaded with aviation charts and manuals in the cockpit, and allows them to be powered up and in use during all phases of a flight. One guest columnist for Time pointed out that exceptions to the electronic device ban are also made for journalists flying aboard Air Force One, implying that such an exemption would never be allowed if the government truly felt that electronic devices posed a threat.

Proponents of the ban rightly assert that the FAA and other agencies cannot possibly test every conceivable device that dozens or hundreds of passengers might bring aboard commercial flights to determine whether they might interfere with the many different electronic systems that are part of modern aircraft.

The latest round of attacks on and defense of the FAA’s rules governing electronic devices was touched off by a widely reported incident last December involving Alec Baldwin. The actor was removed from an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York after he reportedly refused to stop playing the game “Words With Friends” on his iPhone. In order to keep such disputes from occurring while planes are airborne, airline rules and federal regulations permit flight crews to return to the gate and kick offending passengers off the aircraft.

Whether there’s a celebrity angle or not, most such incidents don’t escalate to the point of booting a passenger or getting law enforcement involved. Those steps are usually only taken when a passenger responds to flight attendants’ directives with aggressive or offensive behavior, as Baldwin allegedly did.

For every passenger actually caught using an electronic device, of course, there’s probably one or more of them surreptitiously using a smartphone, iPod or e-reader. Many more passengers likely are carrying devices that remain turned on throughout the flight, intentionally or otherwise, even if they don’t use them.

So does this present a danger? Common sense would say no, or else there would be a lot more commercial plane crashes. Research studies on the topic have come to varying conclusions. Following the crash of a Swiss commuter flight just after takeoff that killed ten people in early 2000, investigators decided to audit mobile phone records of the passengers. There appeared to be a correlation between two passengers’ texting and phone call activity and a malfunction of the aircraft’s autopilot system. Although the evidence was far from definitive, many countries instituted airplane cell phone bans as a result, some of which have been lifted in the decade since the Swiss disaster.

In the United States, the FAA seems to prefer to err on the side of caution. Consumer electronic devices are essentially assumed to have the possibility of interfering with aircraft electronics unless airlines can demonstrate otherwise. The stakes are so high – the chance that hundreds of people dying in a what would be a preventable and highly publicized incident – that the FAA doesn’t want to allow even a tiny risk.

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