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Essay: Electronic Devices on Planes: Is the Madness Nearly Over?

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Of the many constant pet peeves associated with modern-day air travel- from inexplicable delays to intrusive security measures to really, really bad food- I think the one that bothers me most is needing to turn off electronic devices on landing and takeoff.

This was bad enough years ago, when the flashing of the “turn off electronic devices” meant needing to turn off your Discman before you got done listening to your Barenaked Ladies CD. Now, in the age of the smartphone and tablet, it’s downright oppressive. Roughly 8 out of 10 people I’ve seen on an airplane in the last two years has had either an iPad or laptop out for most of the flight, whether to conduct important business or to marathon an entire season of The Big Bang Theory, cackling uproariously for all five hours of a flight to Vegas.

But regardless of what we’re doing, the phone and tablet and laptop must turn off. And that’s just ridiculous.

The reason for this is simple: There has never been a shred of evidence that electronic devices have any effect on the plane. This is sort of like the long-alleged connection, never proven, about cell phone waves causing cancer- shouldn’t cancer rates have skyrocketed, in the handful years in which we went from almost no one having a cell phone to almost everyone having one?

If all you needed to do to put a plane in danger is turn on your cell phone, why haven’t terrorists tried that? Why haven’t the TSA bureaucrats who demand we remove our shoes confiscate our cell phones pre-flight?

To those perpetuating the devices ban, I ask you this: Haven’t you ever travelled with kids? Don’t you realize how hard it is to keep a three-year-old occupied on an hours-long flight? Turning off the iPad for the last 20 minutes can be deadly.

Fortunately, it looks like the madness may soon be over. Julius Genachowski, the now-outgoing chairman of the FCC wrote a letter in December asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to “enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices,” The Hill newspaper reported. The FAA had commissioned an inquiry last summer to study the issue.

The next step, according to Genachowski’s letter, is for the FAA, FCC and airline industry to work together on a solution. Previous relaxations of the rules have led to the advent in recent years of in-flight WI-Fi, and in turn to one of the better bits of Louis C.K.’s career.

Meanwhile, there’s a call from Congress to get things moving even more quickly. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said in early March that she will introduce a bill to legalize electronics use during takeoff and landing of flights. Frustrated with the slow pace of the FAA process, McCaskill had threatened late last year to introduce a bill, which she vows will earn bipartisan support.

“The general public and many in Congress, certainly myself included, long ago rejected the idea that the current [personal electronic devices] rules are any longer about safety,” Sen. McCaskill wrote in public letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on March 7. “I am confident that when the agency looks at what makes sense for safety, for the limited resources of aircraft cabin crews to enforce rules, and for consumer satisfaction, it will have no choice but to act quickly to revise the current rules in order to allow expanded use of PEDs in flight.”

Does Congress have better things to do? Certainly. But it’s not doing most of them. So why not deal with an issue that just about all Americans realize can be resolved easily and with little harm to anyone? And when they’re done with that, I’d love some answers on why laptops have to go in separate security trays.

(This column appears in the April issue of Tell Magazine) 

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