Phones on Flights: The New Mobile Madness

Phones on Flights: The New Mobile Madness

Earlier this week I was in seat 27D on an American Airlines 737 flying from Dallas-Fort Worth to San Francisco. We were descending into SFO on the final leg of the flight when I glanced across the aisle and was surprised to see that the people in 27B and 27C—an older gentleman and a young woman, respectively—both had their cell phones out, and were furiously sending text messages.

I wasn’t in the mood to berate or tattle on my fellow passengers, so I didn’t say anything. But the texters were openly flouting at least four Federal Aviation Administration regulations: the one prohibiting the use of electronic devices during taxi, take-off, and landing; the one saying devices should be stowed away at those times; the one requiring compliance with crew instructions; and the one against activating the cellular functions of a phone in flight, period.

Obviously, the plane didn’t crash. And it wasn’t the possibility that the phones might interfere with the aircraft’s avionics that really bothered me—I tend to agree with my fellow journalist Nick Bilton that the FAA’s rules about technology on planes are sadly outdated.

No, what astonished me was that these two passengers clearly felt that the rules—and they are rules, whether we like them or not—didn’t apply to them. Their text messages were apparently so urgent that they couldn’t wait for another 10 minutes, when the plane would be on the ground.

It was hardly the first time I’ve seen passengers ignoring electronic-device regulations on flights. And I’ll confess that I’m an inadvertent violator myself: I once pulled out my phone at the end of a flight, only to find that I’d forgotten to turn it off. Again, with no catastrophic effects—but that’s not the point. The point is that many of us are now so wedded to our mobile devices that we feel we shouldn’t be asked to do without them, even for a few minutes. A lot of airline passengers seem to agree with Alec Baldwin that it’s their God-given right to play Words With Friends on their smartphones all the way up to 10,000 feet.

I’m not normally one to fixate on the social, mental, or health effects of excessive personal technology use. I’ve never given much credence to the idea that video games are clinically addictive, or that Google is making us stupid, or that there really is such a thing as nomophobia (fear of being without your cell phone). But after my experience on the plane, I started wondering whether our mobile devices might really be doing something new and disturbing to our psyches.

Let’s look at the facts. As late as 2000 or so, cell phones were still luxury items. But now some 88 percent of Americans own a mobile phone—and in 2012, for the first time, owners of smartphones outnumbered owners of more basic phones, according to the Pew Research Center. These days, our phones are rarely out of arm’s reach, even when we’re sleeping.

There’s no excuse for boredom when Apple, Google, Amazon, and Netflix have made hundreds of thousands of songs, movies, books, and games available on our phones on demand. It’s impossible to get lost thanks to the devices’ GPS functions, and impossible to be lonely when Facebook is only a few taps away. For a reminder of how drastically things have changed, just watch a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was on TV from 1997 to 2003, and then watch a few episodes of Glee, which debuted in 2009. Cell phones are non-existent in Sunnydale and are ubiquitous at McKinley High.

But this cornucopia of connectivity, which seemed so wondrous before it actually arrived, is now just part of the background. It’s as if the ratio of oxygen and nitrogen in the air had been changed and our systems had all adjusted to the new mix. Now, it seems that even brief periods of cell phone deprivation leave people feeling anxious, fidgety, and defiant.

Flight attendants may be our best front-line witnesses to this change—and they seem more and more desperate about it. I was taken aback during my trip this week when … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com.

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  • Jay

    Next time don’t be a whimp. Light up the call button. Get the flight attendant to get on the abusers and don’t take any lip if they (either the flight attendant or the violators) complain.

  • Chris

    Well there’s an obvious solution to this that could benefit the airlines handsomely. Give the crew the authority to fine passengers if they’re caught violating protocol. There’s a new revenue stream!

  • Guest

    Gave the exact flight, and the exact seats, little squealer. Shame.