Blogs & Comment

Electronic discrimination in the skies

Airline staff always crack down on electronic devices, transmitting or not, but are fine with printed matter.


Photo: Aaron C.

If you’ve ever been on a plane, you’ve probably heard those announcements right before take-off and landing asking passengers to turn off all electronic devices. For kicks, I sometimes refuse to, just to hear what excuses flight staff come up with for why I should.

There’s the popular one, about how electronics with connection technologies – the likes of cellphones, laptops, iPads – can interfere with the plane’s navigational systems. If that were true, I don’t know why would-be terrorists would go through the trouble of smuggling in shoe bombs or explosives packed in liquid containers when all they would need to do to cause catastrophe is turn on their phone.

I looked into this a couple years back while I was at the National Post (alas, I can’t find the article online, otherwise I’d link to it) and found that the real reason cellphones can’t be used on planes is because, in the event that their signals are strong enough, they play havoc with networks on the ground. Because planes move so fast, phones can jump quickly from cell tower to cell tower, which can ultimately cause a big roaming mess. Cellphone carriers wouldn’t know how to bill their customers. That’s why the Federal Communications Commission bans use on planes, unless such connections run through special in-flight systems.

Nevertheless, the debate continues. ABC News had a recent report on a confidential airline industry report that questioned whether using phones on board really is safe but, as a former Air Force and commercial pilot put it, there really is no proof either way.

In any event, I’ve never actually tried to use a cellphone on a plane, and not because of the potential interference issue. Sitting next to someone on a bus while they chat away is annoying enough; having to do it on a plane would be intolerable. My mom raised me to have better manners than that.

But what happens when the particular gizmo you’re using doesn’t actually have any sort of wireless connection, or it’s turned off in airplane mode? Why, in that case, do the flight staff still want you to shut it down?

Such was the case Thursday night, when I was flying back in to Toronto from a PlayStation press event in New York. I was reading a book on my iPad when the flight attendant told me to turn it off. I ignored her and, when she returned and told me again, I asked her why. She whipped out another excuse I’ve heard before, which is that the device could fly out of my hands while landing and nail someone in the head.

True enough, but so could a book. Getting beaned with a hardcover copy of Sex, Bombs and Burgers hurts just as much (trust me, I tested it – and yes, that is a cheap plug).

Failing that, she tried another excuse – that the staff needed my full attention while landing in case of emergency. Again, fair enough – but, I asked, why weren’t the people reading books and magazines asked to put those away? Her answer made me chuckle: apparently, any flight attendant who didn’t ask passengers to stow their printed reading material was being negligent.

I finally put my iPad away, which made her happy, but then she did the unbelievable – she walked right by my friend, seated in the row ahead of me, and completely ignored the fact that he was reading a book. I asked if he had heard our exchange and he said, “Yup.” We shared a laugh.

But seriously – what’s with the double standard? This was far from an isolated incident. Airline staff always crack down on electronic devices, transmitting or not, but are fine with printed matter (including the airline’s own magazines stuffed into the seat pockets). The conspiracy-minded would say it’s because laptops, iPods and iPads are sucking away revenue from airlines’ pay-per-use entertainment systems, but I don’t believe it’s that simple.

That said, I can’t explain it as anything other than electronic discrimination. When will our gadgets finally get equal treatment? Can’t we all just get along?