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  Do Our Gadgets Really Threaten Planes?

  WAS ALEC BALDWIN RIGHT? When the actor tussled withAmerican Airlines personnel last December over his desire tocontinue playing a game on his phone during takeoff, he wasevicted from the flight. Defying airline safety rules is not a goodidea, but was Baldwin perhaps correct not to take the dangerseriously?

  On Aug. 31, the Federal Aviation Administration requested public comment on its longstandingpolicy of prohibiting the use of personal electronics during takeoffs and landings. The restrictionsdate back to 1991 and were motivated in part by anecdotal reports from pilots and flight crewsthat electronic devices affected an airliner's navigation equipment or disrupted communicationbetween the cockpit and the ground. Over the years, however, Boeing has been unable toduplicate these problems, and the FAA can only say that the devices' radio signals 'may' interferewith flight operations.

  To gather some empirical evidence on this question, we recently conducted an online survey of 492 American adults who have flown in the past year. In this sample, 40% said they did not turntheir phones off completely during takeoff and landing on their most recent flight; more than 7% left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active. And 2% pulled afull Baldwin, actively using their phones when they weren't supposed to.

  Consider what these numbers imply. The odds that all 78 of the passengers who travel on anaverage-size U.S. domestic flight have properly turned off their phones are infinitesimal: less thanone in 100 quadrillion, by our rough calculation. If personal electronics are really as dangerous asthe FAA rules suggest, navigation and communication would be disrupted every day on domesticflights. But we don't see that.

  Why has the regulation remained in force for so long despite the lack of solid evidence to supportit? Human minds are notoriously overzealous 'cause detectors.' When two events occur close intime, and one plausibly might have caused the other, we tend to assume it did. There is no reasonto doubt the anecdotes told by airline personnel about glitches that have occurred on flights whenthey also have discovered someone illicitly using a device.

  But when thinking about these anecdotes, we don't consider that glitches also occur in theabsence of illicit gadget use. More important, we don't consider how often gadgets have been inuse when flights have been completed without a hitch. Our survey strongly suggests that thereare multiple gadget violators on almost every flight.

  Fear is a powerful motivator, and precaution is a natural response. Regulators are loath to makepolicies less restrictive, out of a justifiable concern for passenger safety. It is easy to visualize thehorrific consequences should a phone cause a plane to crash, so the FAA imposes thisinconvenience as a precaution.

  Once a restriction is in place, though, removing it becomes a challenge because every day withouta gadget-induced accident cements our belief that the status quo is right and justified. Unfortunately, this logic is little better than that of Homer Simpson, who organized an elaborateBear Patrol in the city of Springfield and exulted in the absence of bear sightings that ensued.

  We are not suggesting that people should disobey the current rules. But we believe strongly thatpolicies like the FAA's ban should be based on evidence rather than on fear. The evidence showsthat nearly every flight must have some phones and gadgets on, and those flights have not beenfalling out of the sky.