Public outcry over the requirement to shut off and stow our electronic devices during air travel seems to be reaching a fever pitch. On November 27 an article in the Technology section of the New York Times by Nick Bilton headlined, “Disruptions: Fliers Must Turn Off Devices but It’s Not Clear Why” hit the street. On 6 December the high profile actor Alec Baldwin created a sensation when he was thrown off an American Airlines flight for apparently refusing to unplug from from his game of “Words with Friends”.
In his article Bilton argues that it’s not clear how not turning off our electronic devices poses a safety of flight issue and that the time has come for these rules to change. He works some math to show that many travelers leave their devices on (intentionally or otherwise) and since we have not seen a catastrophic incident as a result, surely these devices can’t be disrupting to a planes electronics. His math works out to 11 million air travelers who have left their devices on over the last four years and since we haven’t seen a related incident it must be fine to leave our electronics on.
Many of us feel the affront to our personal freedom when we are asked to unplug. That disruption and growing sense of violation is on the rise in our society. In those with an over stuffed sense of entitlement the violation has been more severe and has manifested itself in the high profile public incidents that make the news. Regardless of the safety threat to air travel, is this growing sense of loss something greater? Do we simply feel like our rights are being violated or do we sense something deeper? Is our evolutionary clock ticking? Is that longing to be connected and remained connected some of the first vestiges of our collective emotions? Is it the hidden force of evolution that one day, many futures from now, will herald in us a real pain felt in our central nervous system as when neurons are forcefully severed from our physical bodies today? I think so...but clearly that day is still a long way off...but these very first emotions are felt and cannot be denied.
But before that day we still have a growing problem to address. Should we get upset when we are disconnected during air travel? Is the discomfort of the emotional pangs of being cut from the grid too high? Is the freedom we are forced to give up versus the added safety margin as Bilton suggests, simply too high?Many of these geniuses, Bilton and Baldwin included, are doing the risk vs freedom in their head and coming up with the answer that for them, the risk is simply not worth the inconvenience of powering down. This particular math is hidden the statistics unfortunately Bilton did the wrong math. Whereas I do not believe the FAA or the various airlines who restrict the use of electronic devices (with the exception of cell phones which they must) have done the math it turns out that the math will continue to change over time. The radiation that electronic devices output in digital form vs analogue is far less than then it was in the old days. Although the number of users has increased considerably. I would argue more than 1% of people inadvertently leave their electronics on. The number is much higher than Bilton’s number yet still we have progressed without incident due to a cellphone or iPad intefering with aircraft electronics.
However, Bilton and Baldwin’s desire to leave their devices on is not all about aircraft interference, at least not at the current levels and their relation to aircraft electronics. The rules are about living in a civil, as well as safe, orderly society along with the potential impact on the greater good. No where other than in air travel are we thrown together so close and must cooperate for such good. We all submit to may indignities, inconveniences, discomfort so that we may reach our destination in one piece. The outrage may simply be a reaction to the last vestiges of personal freedom that are being stripped away when we are being told to unplug from the grid...same as we submit to searches and pat downs.
Beyond the combined potential disruption of 200 passengers each with cell phones and iPads all leaving them on...several hundred electronics devices, all concentrated inside an aluminum tube could produce effects that simply are unknown. Whereas all this interference may, in the end, not interrupt the aircraft electronics, it is a well known fact that 200 devices reaching out the closest cell tower simultaneously, will indeed cause cellular disruption. And it’s not just the closest cell tower, from 35,000 feet in the sky a large number of cell towers are in view...up to 200. As the each cell phone leaves and enters a new coverage area it sends out an inquiry, regardless if the phone is in use, only if it is switched on. The quick math shows that 200 phones reaching out to 200 towers can create quite a busy network. Even if you don’t use your cell phone in flight, and it remains on, your phone will be continuously entering a new coverage area. If you leave your phone on expect your battery to be dead at the end of a coast to coast flight even if you never use it. This figure tries to explain the relationship.
In addition to these 40,000 disruptions (keep in mind that is in one location and the location is changing continuously) using our devices reduces our attention that may be required during take off and landing. If you have your phone to your ear or your headphones on playing focused on your iPad how will you hear the flight attendants instructions in an emergency?
Also, consider the hard plastic, aluminum, and glass will also become lethal projectiles flying around during an landing incident.
Let’s not forget the important safety briefing at the start of the flight. This alone can compel the airlines to tell passangers to sit down and sit up, shut down and shut up, and pay close attention.
Finally, the mere annoyance to other passengers (noise abatement) for which the airlines must be able to reduce if only to increase the pleasant flight environment for us all.
For all these reasons, with the jamming of cell phone towers being number one in my book, the real culprit here is lack of education of the flight crew. When a flight attendant is asked why the devices must be powered down they should be able to give the complete and correct answer...not just that “the FAA regulations require us to do it”. A trained flight crew should be able to give the extended answer above. If they gave this answer I don’t think another question would be raised. In some cases I don't think the flight attendants even agree or at least they are soft on the requirement and therefore people are let alone to get away with whatever they can. If they knew all the reasons perhaps they wouldn't be so soft on enforcement. Baldwin seems like one of those types who might be used to getting away with things...regardless if he might believe himself to be a "American Treasure" which he might be. Perhaps some flight attendant's haven't confronted him previously.
In the end, however, without this evolutionary hiccup our continued assimilation into the collective as I've reported previously, would have gone unnoticed. I for one, am glad these warning signals show up. I will be disconnected from the grid, not only on air travel, but when I simply don’t need to be. I'm not ready to be assimilated.