Do We Really Need to Turn off Devices on Planes?

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I’ve been fortunate to be doing a fair bit of travelling with work over the past year, so have become well used to the obligatory request on flights to turn off any electronic devices during take-off and landings. But is such a request really necessary?

A number of people, it seems, have been asking the same question. Nick Bilton of the NY Times asked it late last year. Two psychologists, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, have just asked it again in the WSJ, prompted by the FAA’s (Federal Aviation Administration, who only say that devices ‘may’ interfere with planes) request for public comment on the policy which was apparently instituted in the early 90s on the back of some anecdotal evidence which no-one (including Boeing who have tried) has since duplicated or proved to be correct. A 2006 study (by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics) could only recommend that the existing policy remain because they could find no evidence either way as to whether electronic devices interfered with the plane or not.

In fact an online survey conducted by the psychologists (based on a sample of almost 500 people who had flown in the past year) indicated that a large minority of people ignored the request anyway, with around 40% of people having not turned their phones off completely when asked to on a flight, 7% having left them on with active wifi and other comms functions, and 2% having actively used them during take-off and landing. Somehow, this doesn’t surprise.

So why do we still have this rule? The psychologists speculate that it may have initially had something to do with how quickly and easily we tend to assume that two events that happen close to each other are causally related, and the fact that once in place, a policy so obviously tied to the personal safety of lots of people can be hard to dislodge: “every day without a gadget-induced accident cements our belief that the status quo is right and justified”. Co-incidentally, on the trip I’m on right now, I’ve been reading Charles Duhigg’s excellent The Power Of Habit, which makes a compelling case for just how powerful habits are in driving personal, business, policy and social behaviours. This policy seems to makes an interesting case study in the power of habit.

As Nick Bilton pointed out, there are very good reasons to believe that personal electronic devices would have absolutely no effect on the operations of a plane. The practice of signalling to everyone at the same time that they can switch on their phones (sending current to every part of their phones all simultaneously) once the plane is airborn, kind of makes a mockery of it anyway. As does lots of people ignoring it. Using mobiles, kindles and iPads in ‘airplane mode’ disables the radio signals, so it doesn’t have to be about allowing voice calls. But there should at least be a proper study done and as the WSJ piece says, such policies “should be based on evidence rather than on fear”.

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