Pull the Plug on Plug Pulling

Most citizens accept reasonable societal conventions such as separate gender restrooms, wearing clothes in public or driving on the right side of the road. But people who unquestioningly comply with irrational conventions like not wearing white after Labor Day or turning their electronics off during takeoff and landing infuriate me.

Every time I fly, I am reminded of society’s willingness to comply with the status quo when I am forced to pause my music until reaching the magical altitude of 10,000 feet, below which my Kindle would supposedly send aircraft, satellites and the International Space Station spiraling into Armageddon-style oblivion. Having to stop drafting emails from my iPad for a few minutes or put down a good e-book is only a minor hassle; but what bothers me is the bogus reasoning behind why travellers are required to do so.

The reason commonly offered by flight attendants is that the electronics will interfere with “navigational instruments aboard the aircraft.” Most consumer electronics, powered only by a few watts, are required to pass FCC tests guaranteeing that they specifically do not interfere with any other electronics. Furthermore, even “Mythbusters” aired a special about cell phones disrupting aircraft navigation. The result? “Modern planes are well-shielded enough to not be affected.”

Even if there were significant evidence that some portable electronic devices interfered with navigational instruments, would it not then be logical to ban electronics throughout the whole flight? Sure, it is more critical to have accurate readings during takeoff and landing, but if the electronics interfered with avionics systems, after 10,000 feet the pilot still needs to know where he’s going and communicate. The plane may not immediately crash, but it would still be a flaw in the regulation to allow for electronics that may interfere during any part of the flight.

What’s more, all electronics are disallowed during takeoff and landing, but cell phones are never allowed at any point during the flight. Although it would be annoying to listen to a chatterbox passenger ramble on throughout the flight, there must be another, more logical reason for the banning of cell phones.

Common speculation as to why cell phones are disallowed is that the law forces flyers to use the expensive seat-back phones in flight. And yet, despite this claim, I have never seen anybody pay the exorbitant price to talk on the plane. Another speculation is that hundreds of cell phones switching from tower to tower rapidly would put a strain on cell phone networks, and thus it is in the best interest of the cell phone carriers to keep this law. This possibility sounds suspect, though, because many phones can be put in airplane mode, which turns off their cellular radios. Even so, flyers are prohibited from using their phone as an MP3 player in airplane mode.

To find an answer to all these questions, I decided to do a little investigating. Instead of focusing on the many speculated reasons as to why cell phones are banned during the flight, I redirected my question to ask why non-transmitting electronics were banned during takeoff and landing. I talked with Gavin Garner, an assistant professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Garner said that the probability of an electronic device actually interfering with a flight is way less than most would think. Rather, the security risk of a homing or triggering device for a missile or bomb disguised as a phone might be behind Transportation Security Administration’s reasoning.

My question, however specific, presented even more questions. If Professor Garner’s reasoning were true, would the terrorist not be able to activate the bomb with an inconspicuous foot-switch, or even just wait for 10,000 feet and then press the button on her iPad? Also, if a device were intentionally wired to jam a GPS signal, it could be left on in a backpack and flight attendants would never know. Electronic terrorism certainly is a possibility, but the current policy does not even come close to protecting travelers from various forms of attack. I’ve concluded that the bans are instead just useless and arbitrary ways of how airlines try to appear to maintain “order.”

Since the TSA policy does not adequately guard against terrorism and it does not have significant economic benefits for airlines, why has the rule against electronics during takeoff and landing not been repealed? Likely because having passengers turn off their cell phones and games during the beginning of the flight increases the probability that they will pay attention to the safety presentation at the beginning of the flight. However useless the ban is, it would be harder to pass a law requiring people’s full attention than to keep a law that may be irrational.

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