Why Flight Attendants Hate Your Cell Phone

Their union took the FAA to court to bring back the ban that made their jobs a whole lot easier.

Wong Campion/Reuters

About three years ago, I boarded a plane to Florida on a brutally snowy January day. The unpleasant weather made for terrible flying conditions and the flight had been delayed countless times. As we sat on the runway waiting and waiting for the tower to approve take off, most passengers played a mean game of Angry Birds (it was 2011, after all) or battled it out on Words with Friends.

This was before the Federal Aviation Administration allowed the use of mobile devices during takeoff and landing, and as we were parked on the runway, the flight attendants didn't raise any qualms. One particular passenger, a tall, handsome man in an expensive collared shirt, was frustrated with the delays, screaming into his Blackberry three rows in front of me, very vehemently voicing his rage at the weather to anyone in earshot.

When the captain announced that we were finally headed to the Sunshine State, flight attendants scurried down the rows asking us to put away mobile devices, and most everyone obliged ... or at least pretended.

The businessman, however, just would not hang up his call. As one flight attendant attempted to make it through the safety video over his booming voice, another tried to reason with the man, and as she failed, a third attendant joined in on the efforts. No one could hear the safety demonstration. Their voices grew increasingly stern as we taxied toward takeoff, until the captain threatened over the intercom, just as many parents before him, that he absolutely would turn this bird around if we didn't start behaving.

And then he did. He turned the plane around. He literally pulled a u-turn, went back to the gate, and had the man pulled off the plane by armed guards. The attendants explained the passenger was in violation of FAA regulations and would now face a hefty fine and possibly criminal charges. The other passengers and I sat there, stunned, as the flight attendants shrugged, "Phones."

This is why flight attendants do not like passengers using cell phones during takeoff. They dislike it so much, in fact, that the largest flight attendant union in the United States took the FAA to the U.S. Court of Appeals to bring back the cellphone ban.

Last year, the FAA determined that it was safe for passengers to use electronic devices during takeoff and landing, as long as the airplane is equipped with proper interference technology. Cell phones must be in airplane mode, according to the FAA, but as a matter of practical application, it is impossible for flight attendants to check each mobile device. Thirty-one airlines, which carry 96 percent of commercial passengers in the States, have met FAA standards for interference protection.

The flight-attendants union, however, believes that not only was the ban removed without going through the proper channels, it also decreases airline safety. The union argued the devices could become projectiles during turbulent takeoffs and landings, and that they distract from the safety demonstration at the beginning of the flight.

George Hobica, an air-travel expert, explained that the flight attendants make their strongest point when it comes to safety. "If you asked 100 fliers about the demo, where their life vest is, they wouldn't know. When the plane landed in the Hudson, people left without their life vest—of all planes to leave without your life vest! It is bad enough when people are reading their newspapers, and it is rude for one thing, but it is also dangerous," he said. Cell phones just make their jobs even harder.

One lawyer on the case, addressing the union's concern that the devices can become projectiles, said it was no different than if a book began to fly around. Hobica, however, is unconvinced. "It is not the same as reading books. You can read a book and not distract other passengers."

The flight attendants are having a hard time making their case in court, though. As a judge on the case noted, the FAA is simply allowing the use of these devices during takeoff and landing as an option. They are not making a demand of the airlines.

If the flight attendants are not successful in their appeal, they will have essentially no choice but to perform a safety demonstration in front of a group of passengers who are entirely distracted and possibly talking over them. "They don't have any legal standing, they can't even tell people to listen to the safety demonstration," Hobica told me, referring to FAA regulations. "They can say to put down something but they can't enforce it."

On my flight, the businessman was screamed at and threatened by fellow passengers, mainly those in his row. Hobica believes passenger tensions over mobile devices and phone calls will grow exponentially if the use of electronic devices during takeoff becomes the standard. "I would want to say, 'Put that down.' I think if we start having cell phone talks on planes, it'll just lead to fisticuffs. I think most passengers don't want it." Considering brawls over legroom already disrupted two flights, trips like mine may become more common, except the option to turn the bird around will be far less likely.

So, next time you fly, do your flight attendant a favor: Get off the phone.