Having to turn your cellphone off during flights seems like an annoying throwback to the bygone days when planes were less steady in the skies. It seems frankly ludicrous that if cellphone signals could really cause crashes, the airlines would just take our word as to whether or not they were turned off.
Unfortunately, the inconvenient truth is that the electronic signals from cellphones and other electronic devices may actually have an impact on planes' ability to keep you and yours in the air. In a confidential report leaked to ABC News in 2011, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) wrote that between 2003 and 2009 errant electronic signals caused 75 incidents of "possible electronic interference" on airplanes, 40 percent of which were attributed specifically cellphones.
According to ABC News, the problems created by these "interferences" affected such important aspects of air travel as autopilot, landing gear and navigation and were described in such terrifying terms as: "Autopilot disengaged by itself"; "left GPS is not reading correctly" and "the guy in 16F is still playing Angry Birds."*
However, according to IATA spokesman Chris Goater who spoke to MSNBC, these issues weren't necessarily caused by cellphones. "We can't say categorically that these devices cause interference, but there are enough anecdotal reports from pilots to raise the question," Goater said.
Even ABC News' own aviation expert, a former Air Force and commercial pilot, expressed doubts with the findings, noting, "It's pilots, like myself, who thought they saw something but they couldn't pin it to anything in particular. And those stories are not rampant enough, considering 32,000 flights a day over the U.S., to be convincing."
All of this is to say we don't know how much of an impact cellphone signals have on planes, which is a good argument for turning them off. I'm all for taking risks, but if you really need to rage against the machine while aloft why not ask for the whole can of Coke or something. As long as airlines insist on keeping up the conceit that a crash could be the result of playing Words With Friends on the runway (I'm looking at you Alec Baldwin...hi!), we need to keep up the conceit that we believe it.
It's easy to imagine a flight going from in control to insane, and therefore flying requires a certain reverence for the rules even when those rules might seem ridiculous. In addition, turning your cellphone off just makes you look good. It demonstrates intelligence because it shows that you don't think you know everything about everything; it shows you understand it's pretty insane for people to fly and would like to do anything in your power to make it safer; it suggests you are able to overcome your selfish need to do everything that you want all the time; and maybe most importantly, it reveals that you understand the importance of ritual and ceremony, especially at times when things are in fact totally out of your control and most people around you have ceased to even try to keep up the pretense of civilization.
There's something about being 10 minutes off the ground that causes people to start acting like this really might be their last big hurrah. They're taking of their shoes. They're drinking vodka at 9 a.m. They're watching an hour long infomercial for a Sandals resort in Jamaica. And they're leaving their phone on, which, okay, is probably never going to make your plane crash, but it will 100 percent for sure make you look like a jerk. Get it together, and at least pretend that some things, like doing what you're told when soft little body is rocketing through the air, are sacred.
*No one really said that, but you know what I mean.