loud phone conversation memeThe ban on most electronics on planes is expected to change this week (thanks, Nick Bilton!), but you still won’t be able to make phone calls during flight. And no, it’s not because of some vague threat of “interference” with the plane’s systems, but poor social etiquette.

The real threat of personal electronic devices (PEDs)–and therefore why talking on phones in-flight is still banned–is the Loud Obnoxious Conversation.  

First, some background info. PED’s fall into 2 broad categories: those that transmit wirelessly (like phones and wifi-enabled devices), and those that don’t (like iPods or non-3G iPads). If the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) moves quickly this week, you’ll now be allowed to use non-connected devices during the entire flight, including takeoff and landing. You still won’t be able to use wifi during takeoff or landing, and you won’t be able to make calls during the flight. (Note that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also regulates this area because it overlaps with wireless frequencies and communication).

Realistically, though, the FAA, the FCC, and the in-flight staff won’t know if your device is really off, or whether it’s transmitting data elsewhere. And it’s not a problem, because PEDs don’t pose a threat to aircraft systems, nor did they ever.

Why can’t you make phone calls on planes? No, it’s not because mobile phones somehow double as plane-destroyers that can ruin navigation systems with a single call. It’s because cramming dozens of people in close proximity and uncomfortable seats for hours is already a high-anxiety situation, and adding Loud Obnoxious Conversations to the mix is a recipe for disaster…or “air rage,” as people in the aviation industry refer to it.

bridesmaids plane air rage

All it takes is one person without social boundaries–or empathy–to have a loud conversation in the middle of a plane to ruin everyone’s flight. I’d go so far as to say it’s worse than a screaming baby; at least the baby doesn’t know better. Plus it turns the flight attendants into phone etiquette enforcers when they have plenty of other jobs to do.

transcript of a July 2000 House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aviation hearing on PEDs addresses the problem with in-flight phone calls, saying that:

A recent survey found that prohibited electronic devices were the second most frequent cause of air rage among passengers behind alcohol…there are some people who are so annoyed by people talking loudly into their phones, that they would be just as happy if such devices were banned altogether.

In 2005, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Nicholas A. Sabatini testified in a hearing titled “Cell Phones on Aircraft: Nuisance or Necessity:”

“…it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where use of cell phones by several passengers in the confined space of an aircraft cabin could lead to conflicts.  We are concerned that, should cell phone use be permitted, flight attendants might be distracted from their critical safety duties and responsibilities if they are increasingly required to deal with irate passengers.  This will be one of the issues that we will continue to assess and monitor if cell phone technology proliferates onboard aircraft.”

Patricia A. Friend, President of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), also testified in the same hearing that cell phones on planes would make flight attendants’ jobs even more difficult, noting that the AFA:

“categorically rejects the notion that cell phone use on an aircraft is a necessity. Allowing cell phone usage would result in the vast majority of our time, effort, and energy being diverted from important safety and security duties to becoming an in-flight cell phone enforcer…We urge this subcommittee and all of Congress to work with the FCC, the FAA, and other government agencies to ensure that existing bans on the use of cell phones on board commercial airplanes in flight are kept in place.”

Although the phone and wireless companies are lobbying to allow cell phone use on planes, various passenger and flight attendant groups are fighting to keep them banned because of air rage. And honestly, I support them. I just wish they were more transparent about the reasons why, instead of feeding off people’s fears of plane crashes and insinuating that using a perfectly safe device could cause the plane to go down in flames.

I spend a lot of time on planes, and the dishonesty is what truly annoys me. Sure, the fact that the gadget ban cost 105 million hours of lost productivity is annoying, too, but it’s the principal: the FCC and the FAA are letting technology take the blame when the real problem is simple human behavior.

Image: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/airplane

Image: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/airplane

And just to reiterate how we know that PEDs aren’t a danger:

  • Wireless devices don’t use the same frequencies as onboard instruments, so there’s simply no way that one could affect the other. Thinking about this rationally for a second, do you really think they’d let a plane full of people up in the air if a single mobile device could seriously impair it?
  • 30% of people have left a device on during takeoff or landing…and clearly they lived to take a survey about it.
  • No evidence exists that PED’s have ever interfered with planes’ on-board systems. None. No gadget has ever been responsible for a crash.
  • Many flight crews use iPads on the flight deck, which is obviously closer to the plane’s navigation instruments than the cabin holding the passengers.
  • If you’re on a private jet, you can use your mobile phone in-flight.
  • MythBusters busted this one.

It’s reasonable that the ban on PEDs was born out of a fear of the unknown. But it’s time to let that fear go and stop playing off anxiety about flight safety to justify an etiquette-based rule. It’s okay that mobile phone calls are still banned in the air–nobody likes the Loud Obnoxious Conversation. But let’s acknowledge the real reason for it.