October 2, 2013

FORBATH: Connecting Through Forced Disconnect

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“You can’t use your phone until we land, sir.”

“We’re flying in a Lockheed Eagle series L-1011. It came off the line 20 months ago and carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?”

Toby Ziegler, the cynical-yet-lovable White House Communications Director on The West Wing, uttered these words during the show’s memorable pilot episode when he tried to contact the president mid-flight (after learning his boss had biked into a tree).

That episode aired last millennium. Fast-forward 14 years, and real-life airline passengers are still forbidden from using cell phones on planes. In fact, they’re not allowed to use any electronic devices when the aircraft is flying below 10,000 feet due to possible interference with the airplane’s navigation instruments.

But when I took an early morning flight from the Ithaca airport last week, I fell asleep as soon as I sat down in my seat and didn’t wake up until after the plane landed. Even though I forgot to turn off my laptop, my phone and my Kindle, the pilot was able to land the tiny regional commuter plane in one piece.

Then why do flight attendants force us to pause our games of Candy Crush Saga and interrupt our careful listening of the “What Does the Fox Say” lyrics? This week, the FAA is considering lifting the ban on passengers’ use of certain electronics below 10,000 feet.

If recommendations made by an FAA advisory panel are taken up, passengers will be able to access content already downloaded on their portable electronic devices. However, they will still be forbidden from using a network connection. Guess I won’t be able to send Snapchat selfies posing in front of the Wright brothers-era propeller on future Ithaca flights after all!

Some members of Congress, including Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), have urged the FAA to lessen its restrictions on electronics, claiming that flight attendants should be focused on imminent passenger safety rather than imposing arcane regulations. “The current rules are inconvenient to travelers, don’t make sense and lack a scientific basis,” McCaskill said.

While I commend Senator McCaskill’s concern for passenger safety, is it really too much to ask people to disconnect for a few minutes? If the new rule is enforced, won’t flight attendants have to spend even more time peering over passengers’ screens, trying to determine whether or not they are using a network connection?

Although I was completely conked out on my flight from Ithaca, I was wide-awake on the way back. As the flight took off, I had my smartphone on my lap (completely shut off — no worries), planning on daydreaming and listening to music once the plane reached 10,000 feet. I peered over at the woman in her late 20s next to me and saw that she was fidgeting with her iPhone, which had no more function than an oversized paperweight below 10,000 feet. We gave each other an awkward weak smile before talking about how we hoped the FAA would lessen its restrictions on portable electronic devices the following week.

But even after the plane reached its cruising altitude, neither of us ended up touching our phones for the duration of the flight. Instead, we chatted about our lives and experiences and she gave me reassuring advice about post-college life (which I really, really needed at the time).

The more I reflect on my flying experience last week, the more I hope that the FAA doesn’t implement the advisory panel’s recommendations. Of course I would support flight attendants’ being able to better dedicate their efforts to customer safety, but when else are we ever in the situation where we absolutely must cut ties with our devices without any surrounding distractions? Maybe we can learn to appreciate this atypical time in which we are forced to disconnect from high tech and instead channel our energy into connecting with those around us.