Did Alec Baldwin really need to stop playing Words With Friends?

Molly Wood Dec 9, 2011

Did Alec Baldwin really need to stop playing Words With Friends?

Molly Wood Dec 9, 2011

If you follow celebrity gossip (and it’s OK to do so even if you are a public radio listener), you know about actor Alec Baldwin being removed from a recent flight because he refused to get off his electronic device. Word is he was caught up in a game of Words With Friends. This behavior, of course, violates Federal Aviation Administration rules, but those rules may violate common sense. I don’t know about you, but I’ve accidentally left my phone on with the signal active for an entire flight and the plane landed just fine. Is a state-of-the-art jumbo jet really affected by my little gizmo?

Some of us get grumpy about having to turn off our phones, Mr. Baldwin being an extreme example. “I get everything from a roll of the eyes, to ‘it’s not doing anything,'” says Sarah Keagle, who works as a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline and blogs about her experiences and the industry. “And flight attendants did not make the rule, we have to enforce rule.”

“You probably aren’t causing any problems, but probably doesn’t cut it when we have that many airline flights a day,” says Jay Apt, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He was part of a research study on this issue in 2005.

“We did an analysis of the pilots’ Aviation Safety Reporting System database that NASA maintains,” he says. “And we found that personal electronic devices were causing errors in the navigation system, the radar altimeter, the autopilot, the ground proximity warning system and even an engine fuel controller. The cockpit crew, of course, when they saw these errors, asked the cabin crew to make sure that all the personal electronic devices were turned off. The cockpit crew, in a few cases, verified the personal electronic device was the source of the error by having them turned back on and then seeing the navigation error repeat before requiring the device be secured.”

So Apt says it’s possible your phone can screw up a flight although that’s highly unlikely.

Nick Bilton is the author of “I Live in the Future & Here’s How it Works.” He has been writing about this issue in the New York Times and points to a different study. “The FAA,” he says, “hired an outside agency to look at if mobile phones could do anything to damage planes and things like that. The agency found that there were inconclusive results to say that they could or they couldn’t.”

Bilton thinks it’s kind of ridiculous that he’s not allowed to read a Kindle on a plane’s final descent. He says the rule banning that is left over from the ’60s when planes weren’t nearly as advanced as they are today. “The wiring within these modern planes, they’re all shielded, and I’ve spoken with dozens of electrical engineers that have said that. These devices that we have today — these iPads, Kindles , iPhones — they have a little switch called Airplane Mode which essentially disables the radios and it just allows people to play games or read books or magazines or whatever it is on these devices, but the FAA doesn’t allow people to do that.”

Also in this program, facial recognition software has come to Hulu. Now you can watch a show (well, one of the few so far available), click on an actor’s face, and get their whole life story. Maybe you want to do that. Or maybe you just want to watch the show and ease back on the constant clicking. Who am I to judge?

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