Do Our Gadgets Really Threaten Air Travel?


In the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris look at how many people actually follow directions to disable their electronics during take off and landing and find that such a large number of people don’t follow directions that, were these electronics an actual risk to air travel, we’d be seeing a lot more problems than we do.

we recently conducted an online survey of 492 American adults who have flown in the past year. In this sample, 40% said they did not turn their phones off completely during takeoff and landing on their most recent flight; more than 7% left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active. And 2% pulled a full Baldwin, actively using their phones when they weren’t supposed to.

Consider what these numbers imply. The odds that all 78 of the passengers who travel on an average-size U.S. domestic flight have properly turned off their phones are infinitesimal: less than one in 100 quadrillion, by our rough calculation. If personal electronics are really as dangerous as the FAA rules suggest, navigation and communication would be disrupted every day on domestic flights. But we don’t see that.

I’m guilty of this, though by accident.  I’m a frequent flyer who is generally pretty terrified of flying.  I always intend to follow instructions about disabling my various gadgets to the letter, but more than once I’ve forgotten to disable the wi-fi on one of my devices, or to turn off my cell phone.  I can’t imagine I’m alone in this.  As the article suggests, probably every flight that will take off and land in America today will do so with gadgets turned on when they shouldn’t be.

Which suggests that perhaps the time when we need to disable these gadgets has passed.

The FAA, by the way, is considering changes to policies to allow at least some devices (not cell phones, though) to be used during take off and landing.  That’s a good start.  Let’s hope the change happens soon.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • SMJ

    In a word, no. Modern commercial aircraft have their comm and nav systems very well shielded against interference. It would take much more than a planeload of energized cell phones to move the needles.

    The cell phone side of the rule actually goes back to when there were roaming charges as a common part of a cell plan. When a cell phone was on inflight, it hit so many towers (this is actually a more legit concern) that the cell companies could not figure out if it was roaming or not, and thus could not charge roaming. The cell companies thus lobbied the FCC for the rule, which is also reflected in federal aviation regs.

  • jimmypop

    in smaller aircraft SOME phones SOMETIMES disturb instrumentation on the approach. nothing that would cause any concerns though. on anything larger than a puddle jumper, nothing has ever been affected. myth busters did a great show on this one.

    its about making you pay attention should you fail to realize your plane is about to/ has crashed into the water or is on fire. its stupid. but we’ve done it for so long we can’t just stop being stupid or we would have looked stupid before.

  • SigFan

    I wonder if the reason they keep this ban in place is to get people to pay attention during the take-off safety instructions. Not that many do.

    And no – modern instrumentation is shielded so well the only thing that might screw with it is an EMP bomb.

  • jamermorrow

    The biggest threat to air travel is restricting the ability of people to protect themselves. Treating us like sheep and making us dependent on the government is the biggest threat.

  • mikemc1970

    I always thought it was to get more people to use the onboard payphones. I am a pretty frequent flyer and have never seen anyone use one.

  • yy4u2

    Spoke with a pilot recently about this very issue. Apparently it isn’t really a problem until the person uses the device to transmit. In other words, this is one of those times when it isn’t better to give than to receive.

  • VocalYokel

    Exploding Nikes…incendiary Hanes…you don’t have to be a Luddite to suspect that cell phone companies are capable of something dastardly.