Airplane Mode

What road warriors are really thinking when it’s time to shut down their devices during takeoff and landing.


Frequent fliers like to ask, Is there actually a point to having to turn off my gadget during take-off and landing? The FAA thinks so. So it was with moderate interest that I scrolled through Rebecca Gingrich’s article from The Atlantic, “The Sad Flier’s Crusade for Airplane Mode.” I found myself adrift in conflicting emotions, riding a wave from “Yeah, when are they gonna change that rule, anyway?!” to “You know what, it’s not that big a deal.”

As with many things these days, some of us seem to have a short fuse when it comes to air travel. Witness Alec Baldwin’s highly publicized tussle with American Airlines over shutting off his electronic device–which he later spoofed on SNL.

Still, many of us who globe-trot have been there. By “there,” I mean that moment in using our electronic devices when we’re actually engaged in something compelling, yet suddenly need to shut down because it’s 30 minutes before the plane lands. Ah-ha! You’ve just come face to face with The Rule. For me, The Rule typically cuts in when I’m typing midstream in Excel or Powerpoint. Occasionally, I’ve reached the “inspiration point” in a Word document. I might have even arrived at the “Ah-ha!” moment of a DVD thriller. Once I was three pages from the climax of a can’t-put-it-down e-book. Then bingo! There’s The Rule telling me it’s time to turn down the flame on my Kindle. This is where Gutenberg has it all over electronic ink.

The moment of surrendering to The Rule, amid groans of interrupted creativity or pleasure, is like a rite of tribal passage. The clickety-click of wireless contraptions writhing into shutdown mode–i.e., Airplane Mode–is too indescribable for words. A communal sigh settles over the cabin, followed by a slow tensing up. At last you are descending toward your destination, which I would describe as an interminable passage during which passengers are required to make like a mannequin. Some of us take a brief fling at being philosophical, then think, “When the heck is the landing gear coming down?” Some glance nervously about the cabin. Others relax. In a too-brief moment of synchronicity, our collective consciousness arrives at the same quiescence, feels the same apprehension, shares the same unanswered question: Why do we have The Rule?

The original column by New York Times blogger Nick Bilton calls into question the technical rationale for the rule, which is certainly the first thing that I think about. Being no expert on aviation instruments nor radio communications, I’m willing to accept the authority of other individuals or groups on this subject. But Bilton points out that the technical evidence for shutting off electronic devices during takeoff and landing is murky at best.

The real moral high ground in this issue is one that trumps all sides of debate: safety. Absent the slightest possibility of technical interference or radio toppling (or whatever; I got that “toppling” thing from Dr. No), the cabin crew still has a fair argument that in the event of an emergency or tough landing conditions, they will need every passenger’s undivided attention. It’s a fair point, and one not really worth compromising. 


And as Gingrich points out, with the poor turnout for an “Allow Airplane Mode” petition, it’s really just not that big a deal. Although we’ve all been there in that moment I described above, we’re also (mostly) adults who are capable of sitting still without a battery-operated bauble to command our attention. I’m not going to seek out and sign any such petition. 

But I won’t lie to you, either. I’m still going to mutter a curse, bite my tongue, and grumble a bit–but not all at once–when my attention is diverted away from James Bond on my iPad and towards the uncomfortable upholstery, harsh cabin lighting, and stale air for what never fails to be the longest one-half hour of anybody’s life.

Road Warrior  •  Miami  •  Madrid  • • Twitter: @tentofortysix

[Image: Flickr user gardener41]


About the author

I travel a lot, like many of us. And I work for Amadeus, the largest transaction processing and IT company in the world serving the travel industry.