The truth will set you free, but it won’t necessarily make your life any easier. Such is the case with the knowledge that keeping your mobile phone on during takeoff or landing will not mess with the signal, crash the plane or warp you into another vortex. It will, however, irritate everyone on the plane, including the flight attendants and pilots, which is why it’s unlikely to ever change, and also why we may never be able to make voice calls during flights, either.
First, the safety issue: British website Echo recently spoke to Easyjet’s chief pilot Chris Foster, asking him what would happen if passengers left their iPads or mobile phones on during these crucial no-electronic-devices moments. His answer? Nothing.
“In reality, nothing to be concerned about,” Foster told the site. “Aircraft control systems are so sophisticated now that they wouldn’t cause any interference. The regulations date back many years to when we didn’t even have things like iPads. The laws are starting to be relaxed — you can now use your devices in flight safety mode — and I think we’ll see more changes over the next few years.”
MEL asked a former U.S. flight attendant why she thought the rules were still in place stateside to shut off electronic devices when they don’t cause any trouble for the navigation of the plane. “What I was told when I was in flight attendant training was do not worry about whether or not it is true,” she told me. “We tell people to please put their phones away, because we want them to be focused during takeoff and landing. Also it’s considered a flying object. If they were to have to do an emergency stop or something like that, phones will be flying around everywhere.”
She ran the idea by a working commercial airline pilot, who backed up her assumptions. He said it’s what he thinks of as the “obnoxious factor.”
“I have a hard time sitting near someone on the plane talking loudly on cell phones before we leave and after arrival, especially the business people who seem to talk louder so everyone can hear how important their business is,” the pilot told MEL. “Drives me nuts. There is no way I would tolerate that in-flight, so I think in some measure the airlines don’t even want that option to preclude the inevitable fistfights that would break out in cruise. We want the passenger to pay attention during takeoff and landing. And to not have an object in their hand that can go flying off in the cabin during an emergency.”
Coincidentally, this is also why we can’t make voice calls on flights. Not because it would interfere with the flying of the plane itself (though that was the argument when the FCC originally banned them), but because it would be extremely annoying to have to listen to everyone on a plane shouting into their phones.
Currently, the FCC and the Department of Transportation are trying to figure out whether and how voice calls should be permitted. The FCC rules currently ban using radio frequencies for using voice calls, but it doesn’t cover wifi, which now allows voice calls to be made. The Department of Transportation proposed in December of 2016 that in the event that voice calls ever be permitted, customers should be notified in advance that voice calls may be made on a flight before they purchase tickets so that they are not “unwillingly exposed.”
DOT also gave the public 60 days to respond to the question of whether that disclosure would be good enough for passengers, or whether it should seek a total ban on mobile calls in flight. The Economist reported that of the 8,000 comments on the DOT question, the overwhelming majority of respondents appeared to be deeply, passionately against it, barring the odd business traveler who said they’d be more productive if they could make phone calls mid-flight.
But many business travelers don’t want voice calls mid-flight, either. The Global Business Travel Association (a trade group representing business travelers) begged the Department to seek a continued ban on voice calls on the grounds of “traveler convenience as well as security.”
“The din of jet engines means that the cabin of an aircraft is already an extremely loud environment,” they wrote in a letter to the Department of Transportation in February. “According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the interior of a jet aircraft at cruising altitude is between 85 and 100 decibels, which is about the same volume as a lawn mower or a garbage disposal. In order for a passenger to have a phone conversation over the roar of jet engines they would be required to practically shout, which would be severely disruptive to fellow passengers.”
The New York Times reported that domestic airlines have no immediate plans to make changes that would allow voice calls anyway (even though some foreign airlines have allowed such calls for years, apparently without issue). “You see what happens in theaters and on trains and on buses. They have restrictions or prohibitions on this stuff,” Paul Hudson, president of a passengers’ rights group called Flyers Rights, told them. “When they don’t and when people violate it, it causes often altercations, sometimes even violence.”
United Airlines said they didn’t plan to allow voice calls, even if they are made legal, in order to keep flights “more pleasant” for everyone on board.
Critics of keeping the ban argue that, as the Times noted, some 20 international airlines allow texting and chatting and “so far the world has not collapsed,” pointing out that those airlines defend their position with the evidence that most of the in-flight calls tend to be short, and that the airline can always turn off the option during say, overnight flights, while people are sleeping.
Maybe everyone else in the world is more sophisticated than we are. It seems entirely likely that Americans are just a bunch of assholes who can’t trust one another with something as simple as a phone call in an enclosed space.