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one flight attendant warned passengers not to try stowing their phones in the seat-back pockets, where (she said) she’d instantly detect them. Another emphasized before takeoff that electronic devices needed to be fully off—“not in sleep mode, hibernate mode, dark mode, or hide-it-from-the-flight-attendant mode.” Refusal to turn off cell phones is now the leading type of customer misconduct reported by airline attendants, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Are we really so accustomed to being plugged in that we’re unable to sit alone with our thoughts for 20 minutes at the beginning of a flight and 10 minutes at the end? Publishers would certainly like to think so: one newsstand at SFO has a big electronic sign arguing that customers should buy a paper book or magazine, since “You won’t be able to use your e-reader during take-off and landing, and you’ve already read the in-flight magazine 10 times.”
Such messages tap into a real, but not novel, anxiety. Fear of boredom has been selling newspapers at train and subway stations since the 1800s. What’s new, I’m thinking, is the intensely personal nature of our connection with our mobile phones. They’re full of our apps, our e-mail, our friends, our appointments and photos and texts. Being cut off from all that data, especially at a moment when there’s little else to look at but the tacky upholstery pattern on the seat-back in front of us, can feel acutely uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, apparently, that people are willing to risk a confrontation with airline employees (and possible fines and jail time) to alleviate the pain. And that’s probably not wholly healthy.
But it’s possible that the whole issue of phones on planes will blow over within a few years. As Bilton reports, the FAA is getting ready to change the way it tests electrical emissions from electronic devices on airplanes, with the likely result that the list of personal electronic devices approved for in-flight use will grow, and that the amount of time during a flight when those devices must be turned off will shrink. And who knows—eventually, it might even be kosher to make phone calls or send text messages from the air, though that isn’t currently under consideration. (There’s no law of physics preventing phone calls from the air, just a shortage of cell towers. As the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters have pointed out, it was the FCC, not the FAA, that originally banned cell calls from planes.)
In short, it wouldn’t hurt any of us to practice sitting in phoneless, Zen silence—but long before that happens, the FAA and the airlines are likely to accommodate our ravenous appetites for distraction.
Addendum 9/9/12: The Wall Street Journal has published an interesting commentary from Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, psychology professors at the University of Illinois and Union College, respectively. They surveyed recent flyers and found that 40 percent of passengers did not turn their phones off fully on their last flight. “More than 7 percent left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active. And 2 percent pulled a full Baldwin, actively using their phones when they weren’t supposed to.”