Why You Can't Read a Kindle During Take-Off—4 Theories

Thanks to the scores of people who have responded overnight to my item saying that the airline insistence that "any device with an On-Off switch must be switched OFF" was another installment of security theater.

I'll try to digest and respond to some of them later on. For now, a few sample messages representing the main schools of thought.

First Camp: There sure as hell is a safety problem, and the rules are there for a reason. A reader who identifies himself as an airline pilot writes:

Sorry, but you're all wet.  I've been a pilot with a major airline for 24 years and a lot of the stuff you said about pilots in the cockpit just isn't true.  I also have a degree in electrical engineering so I understand the issue is a lot more complicated than you suggest.  I turn my cell phone off before takeoff, partly because it makes good sense and partly because of the penalty if I don't.  I heard a story about a pilot who forgot and the phone rang on short final.  Unfortunately, the FAA was on the jumpseat and violated him on the  spot.

Years ago, I was trying to get into Norfolk on a very foggy night.  The weather came up to minimums so we attempted an approach, but the instruments were going nuts.  The glideslope and localizer were bouncing around inside the case and we refused to continue the approach.  It turns out a passenger was listening to the World Series on an AM radio.  The airplane behaved normally after he turned it off, but unfortunately the weather had gone below minimums during our missed approach and we had to divert to Richmond.  The passengers arrived in Norfolk by bus.  I can't prove the AM radio caused it, but I know it did.

Furthermore, you're encouraging people to break a federal law the airlines are charged to enforce.  We didn't make the rule, but we have to obey it, and arguing with the crew won't change that.  Your article could make life much more difficult for a lot of airline employees who are just trying to do their jobs.  Flight attendants at my airline really do enforce the PED rule.  They have to.

Noted for the record. I must never have flown on this reader's airline, because over the decades I've never once been on a domestic or international flight on which the attendants made sure that phones were actually turned off (as opposed to being out of sight, in a briefcase, in your pocket, not actively being talked-on during takeoff, etc). Seat belts, always checked; seat backs, ditto; clutter around your feet and exits -- those things are always for-real checked, and complied with, since all involved know that they matter.

A less axiomatic version of this perspective from a pilot-friend:

I used to agree with you until I read about the work a couple of Jay Apt's grad students did a few years ago at CMU. It was written up in IEEE Spectrum. In a nutshell, they got on a bunch of airplanes with their instruments and found that the impact of PED's - primarily mobile phones - on the RF environment is decidedly non-trivial. This, coupled with the admittedly anecdotal record of observed/suspected interference effects (no smoking gun), convinced me that the existing rules ought to be kept in place if only by application of the Precautionary Principal. The benefit is certainly not worth the risk.

Your point that the crew probably have their own phones on is valid; but at least if the gauges start to get wobbly they can turn them off!

Second camp: The rules really have a different motivation, and they should just tell us that. Another reader writes:

I couldn't agree more.  I read a quote the other day which essentially said "the great thing about science is that you don't have to believe anything you can't observe." Is there any real science behind this ban?  Aren't planes routinely exposed to power levels several orders of magnitude higher than a phone while passing cell phone towers upon takeoff and landing?  There seems to be no justifiable reason to have people turn off noise cancelling headsets or other devices without transmitters, IMO.  I think you are likely correct in your hypothesis that the airline wants people to pay attention.  But if that is the case, why the pseudo-scientific cover story?

Several other related thoughts:
 - Have you ever read the FCC statement on any electronic device?  The ones that say "this device must not cause any interference and must accept all interference it receives" or something similar.  Essentially, when the airlines tell us these devices may interfere with aircraft systems, they are saying that the equipment on their multi-million dollar aircraft doesn't meet FCC standards for a cell phone. [JF note: Also, aircraft and their navigation equipment must be certified to withstand a direct lightning strike and still function.]
 - One of the United magazines I was reading said having cell phones on was a violation of FCC (not FAA) regulations, which seemed suspect. I suppose having cell phones on could cause issues with cell towers that aren't designed to track objects moving at 500 mph.  Anecdotally, I have lost signal at 75mph before(when my wife is driving, of course).  But again, where's the science?
 - While talking about this subject a Southwest airlines attendant explained that their job is to notify, not enforce.  Ever hear of the police meeting someone at the gate upon arrival because they refused to turn a phone off?

Similarly:

We were talking about this on Facebook yesterday, and I ventured the opinion that the rationale behind the rule is primarily psychological.  It enables the cabin crew to establish a measure of control, and that might make a difference in case things really went south and they had to respond during an emergency.

We rationalize far more than we reason, I suppose.

Third: The D.A.R.E. Effect. A reader writes:

I am of the age that when I was in elementary school we had the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance and Education) program.  Local police came into the classroom to teach us about avoiding drugs.  But there was a problem: they told us crazy, untrue things; e.g., marijuana is highly addictive, it is a gateway drug that will inevitable lead to harder drug abuse, marijuana is often laced with deadly chemicals that will totally kill you. 

When I, and many of my cohort, got older and found out that these things are not necessarily true this had two main, related effects.  First, apparently the police are liars.  What else are they lying about?  I have no interest in trusting the police or being particularly concerned with what they say outside of what I have to do to avoid being maced.  Second, and consequently, apparently drugs are not really at all dangerous since most of what I was told about them turned out to be untrue.  So let's get high, consequence-free!  Sure this is simplistic thinking, but I was 15.  I was not alone. ... I am willing to bet that D.A.R.E. it has done a lot of damage in its time, even contributing to a long term mistrust of police among people under 40 in America today.

All this matters to security theater.  I call it the D.A.R.E. effect.  (It is not unrelated to the boy who cried wolf, but more sinister because it's an institutionalized ethos of authority and control, rather than the boy's immature mischief).  A lot of folks realize that this security theater is meaningless in terms of actually keeping us safe.  And the result is that they (and I) don't really trust TSA agents or flight attendants to be telling them the truth about their safety at any given time.  I doubt that it's gotten this far yet, but I can imagine a time when that distrust manifests in a fatal delay in passenger/customer compliance during an actual emergency situation.

Honestly, simply saying, "Ladies and Gentlemen, for your safety and ours, we need your undivided attention during take off and landing, for that reason we ask that you please turn off all portable electronic devices until we are airborne," would be fine.  The weird quasi-false reason erodes trust.

Similarly:

Just had to mention that while landing in Las Vegas once the uncharacteristically unpleasant SW attendant told me to turn off my digital camera! When I questioned her politely about the need to do this, she repeated her command as if I were a retarded person.

Four: One reason to be thankful for the rules.

My guess is that the ban may have started for good (but misguided) reason but has continued because the airlines realize that if the person next to you actually talked on their phone for a four hour flight, and many would,well, you might beat them senseless. To permit consumer electronics, texting, etc, would open the door for this. If the airlines could figure out a way to add a surcharge for the ability to use electronic devices in flight, they would, and if they aren't doing so they are foolish.

More theories later, including responses. Two quick points: 1) I am all in favor of a permanent ban on people talking on cellphones during flight, for reasons similar to the smoking ban: otherwise a captive audience is exposed to unhealthy/maddening conditions. 2) Whatever the scientific merits may be of banning devices meant to transmit, notably Blackberries and cell phones, there is no logic whatsoever to prohibiting noise-cancelling headphones, digital cameras, or the catchall "anything with an off-on switch."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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