Re-evaluating pointless restriction

We’ve all heard the admonitions every time we board an airplane: When the cabin doors close, we must turn off all electronic devices — cellphones, tablet computers, laptops, e-readers, “anything with an on/off switch.” Those devices must remain off until the airplane has reached 10,000 feet, when all but cellular telephones can be reactivated.

We’re told the reason for these regulations is to avoid interfering with an airplane’s electronics, but we’ve all long suspected that’s false. How many of us, in fact, have stashed away our cellphone only to arrive safely at our destination and realize - Whoops! - we’d failed to turn it off? And yet somehow, the plane made it anyway.

As New York Times technology blogger Nick Bilton notes, if a single iPhone was capable of bringing down a 737, would the Transportation Security Administration — which will confiscate toothpaste if you have more than 3.4 ounces of it — let them anywhere near the airport, much less on board and accessible to passengers? Of course not.

In fact, there is very little evidence cellphones interfere with airplane electronics. Mr. Bilton reports that there’s likely more interference generated at 10,000 feet, when passengers in unison reach for and turn on their tablets, laptops, e-readers and phones, even in airplane mode.

Now, very few of us want to be subjected to the cellphone calls of our fellow travelers in flight, and allowing that would undoubtedly open the door to various acts of air rage. But banning calls is one thing; it’s quite another to ban people from busying themselves playing Angry Birds below 10,000 feet.

So why tell people that they can’t read a book on a Kindle or an iPad as the plane taxis out to the runway and takes off? Surely it’s not the oft-heard excuse that passengers should pay attention to the safety briefing. Most of us can recite the spiel in our sleep, complete with hand gestures to indicate the locations of the exits (two forward, two aft and two over wing). If people can ignore the air crew by reading a paper book (heavier and more dangerous in the event of takeoff turbulence than an e-reader, anyway), they surely can do so with an electronic device as well.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced in August it was initiating a review of its policies for all electronic devices on board airplanes, with a six-month deadline for the group of pilots, flight attendants, technology firms and aircraft manufacturers to report. Let’s hope that when the report comes back, it recommends some common-sense approaches to using electronics in flight — and that it compels the FAA and airlines to be honest with the flying public.

— This editorial appeared Jan. 7 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal