Your Mid-Afternoon Airline 'Safety Theater' Fix

More

On whether rules against Kindle-reading, or using your digital camera or wearing your noise-cancelling headphones, on takeoff and landing make sense, a few recent additions from reader mail:

Maybe we need to be more worried:

I agree with you. Maybe phones need to be off but certainly not Kindles, ipads, or other non-transmitting devices.
 
I rather hope, though, that phones don't make a difference.  Otherwise what's to prevent a few terrorist-wannabes from just turning on their phones while sitting in first class?  Seriously, if all it takes to crash a plane is turning on a phone then why does anyone fly?

Or less:

It's fascinating to me that the pilot who is also an electrical engineer offered no electrical engineering rationale for the rules.  In example one the issue apparently is distraction of the pilot, not electrical interference; in example two we are asked to just trust him because he "can't prove the AM radio caused it, but I know it did."  An AM radio receiving radio waves that flood the plane whether or not the radio is on caused the interference?  Give me a break!

Or more:

Three excerpts from your readers' comments about RF and aviation take me back 41 years, conceivably relevantly:
* "I can't prove the AM radio caused it, but I know it did."
* "[T]he impact of PED's - primarily mobile phones - on the RF environment is decidedly non-trivial."
* "Is there any real science behind this ban?"
In 1970, en route to a weapons department assignment on the carrier America off Vietnam, I attended a three-week course at the Norfolk Naval Air Station called "HERO" -- Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance. Even after four decades, it's easy to recite the take-home (the take-to-sea?) that the Navy taught: "No one really understands the practical complexities of electromagnetic radiation, so when it comes to a flight deck full of electronics and live ordnance, for heaven's sake be as careful as you can be." Question: Even now, in 2011, do physicists and engineers know for certain that stray transmissions can't cause problems in a complex electronic environment?

It can't hurt to be 'situationally aware':

1.  The "if it has an on/off" switch distinction makes clear how ridiculous this all is.  With the wi-fi turned off, a digital watch or a hearing aid will emit as much as a Kindle, and they don't insist you take the batteries out of those.  Why is "on/off switch" the relevant criterion?  For that matter, I could fill my entire checked suitcase with bluetooth, wi-fi, and 3G devices transmitting away and no one would care.  Shouldn't we have RF detectors in the cargo holds if this is a real issue?
 
2.  I'm a GPS geek, and some airlines are ridiculously touchy about them.  Most US carriers are fine with GPS use (other than takeoff/landing).  Some prohibit  them if you check the fine print in the PED list.  Alaska/Horizon actually announces the ban on GPS in their cabin demo, to the point of saying GPS use is prohibited _while at the gate / door open_.  I've had AS flight attendants make a big deal about it when "caught", even worried they would confisicate my Garmin once.  I'm guessing some security genius at AS concluded the only reason a pax would want to know where they are would be so they could hijack the flight.  I'd feel better if they at least admitted that paranoia instead of couching it as "interference with navigational systems".
 
3.  I'm not sure the "shut them off and pay attention" reason is all that bad (though honest would be better!).  I do that voluntarily.  I like to think I'm not a nervous flyer, I love flying in fact, but I do try to keep situational awareness during takeoff and landing on airliners:  put reading in the seat pocket, and be aware of what's going on and anything out of the ordinary.  Then once thru V2/wheels up or turned onto a taxiway, go back to whatever I was doing.  I guess I imagine that if someday my flight were to land long at MDW and blow past the 1000 feet marker at high speed, knowing to brace myself wouldn't be a bad thing.   I'm surprised actually that so many FAs don't do that and just chat or read with 0% of their attention outside the airplane during those short but critical phases.

And after the jump, when will the air travel industry as a whole stop treating us like idiots?

From a reader in North Carolina:

I work in the commercial radio industry and fully concur with your analysis about keeping electronic devices on throughout the commercial passenger experience.  (A longstanding argument I have with my wife when we travel together, by the way).

I also read your correspondent's angry note from today's post about making life difficult for the partner's flight attendant girlfriend.

I believe you hit the nail on the head (as confirmed by the angry flight attendant):  they want everyone to be aware and not distracted during take-offs and landings.  I understand that.

THIS IS A ONGOING PROBLEM WITH THE ENTIRE AVIATION INDUSTRY, from the minute you think about going somewhere (before you buy the ticket) until you finally return home to your house after travelling (hopefully WITH your luggage, if you were dumb enough--or burdened enough with stuff-- to check it):

The entire industry continually treats you, not as an adult, but rather like a 6 year-old (or as the pissy former flight attendant freely admitted-- "an 13 year old boy").  And that is the best-case scenario!  Frequently, they'd rather just lie to you.  They have deceptive dishonest pricing plans, inflexible change policies which simply exist to create revenue rather than to accommodate their customers (if I leave on the earlier connecting flight when there IS a seat available, I am leaving the original seat open for them to resell or to accommodate their standard practices of knowingly overbooking every flights when possible-- why should I have to pay them for that?), and those are all standard business practices among most major airlines....[JF: Not to mention the insanity of the checked-bag fee, which compounds boarding, deboarding, and TSA chaos; as opposed to building that same $25 into the base fare.]  Really, if I were to run an airline (which I would never do nor have the occasion to do), I would simply have the mantra for everyone from the Captain of the plane to the gate attendant, to simply tell the customers the truth about what the hell is really going on.  If they did so, no matter what happened, airlines would gain credibility and people would listen to them again.

THEN, they could honestly tell us when they need our attention, and we would give it to them and fake pretending to listen to their safety briefings.

Stop lying to me about the miniscule radiation coming from my cellphone or my CD player (who the hell still has a portable CD player?) and let me go back to my Kindle to read.

As mentioned earlier, I'll save most responses for later. But here is a point about the rote recitations of safety briefings and "special security announcements" that make up the airline experience.

When I take people for flights in my Cirrus airplane, I am required to give them a safety briefing before takeoff. In my experience, every single passenger listens like crazy, to every word and detail. That is because (a) what I'm telling them is not something they have heard verbatim 10,000 times before, and (b) being in a little airplane really concentrates the mind on possible hazards. So I tell them: here is the handle that would deploy the parachute for the entire plane, if something should happen to the pilot, and here how it works. Here is the fire extinguisher, and here is how it works. Here is the safety-hammer you would use to break through the windows of the plane, if it landed in a way that the doors wouldn't open. Here is what I will be watching and doing during takeoff and initial climb. Here is when I will need you to be quiet. Here are the sounds to ignore, and the ones to notice. And so on. Of course there is an unavoidable rote quality to announcements that must be made thousands of times a day, but the problem this last reader mentions is a real one.

Presented by

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.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In