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me—I tend to agree with my fellow journalist Nick Bilton that the FAA’s rules about technology on planes are sadly outdated.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 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.”

The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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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.