01/28/2013 07:05 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Hey Airline Passengers, Want To Snitch On Your Seatmate?

On a recent flight from Chicago to Philadelphia, Melissa Brown sat next to a dilemma: a fellow passenger whose actions could crash the plane, but probably wouldn't. Should she report him -- or just let him thumb his nose at the rules?

The dilemma, as you can probably guess, was a passenger who refused to power down his electronic device.

"The captain did all the pre-flight announcements," remembers Brown, who works for a tour operator in Philadelphia. "Seats up, trays up, electronics off."

Ah, but the 20-something passenger next to her had other ideas.

"Whatever game he was playing on his phone was more important than the rules the rest of us have to abide by, and he went so far as to hide his phone under his hat every time the flight attendant walked by for their last checks before taking their seats," she says. "His phone was never turned off once during the flight."

The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the in-flight use of wireless devices because of potential interference to the aircraft's navigation and communication systems. It also regulates the use of all portable electronic devices such as iPods and portable DVD players during flight.

But that may be about to change. Late last year, the head of the Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to the FAA, asking it to "enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices" during flights.

To most airline passengers, this seemed long overdue. It's difficult to find any credible evidence that the use of a cell phone or iPod has ever interfered with an aircraft's navigational system in a meaningful way, let alone caused a plane crash. What's more, some pilots now use iPads, which strikes air travelers as hypocritical (they want us to turn off our devices, but they can keep theirs on?).

So what's a passenger like Brown to do?

If she asks the young man sitting next to her to power down his device, he could turn hostile. Spending two hours next to someone who is seething is no fun. And what if he doesn't comply? Telling a crewmember could make him even more upset.

I had a similar problem not long ago when a traveler leaned his seat all the way back into my knees, nearly cracking my computer screen. I felt that if I pushed back too hard, he could go nuts. The reason? The adult passenger was wielding a toy lightsaber. As in Star Wars.

But say nothing, and you are an accomplice to a violation of federal law. An obsolete federal law, but a law nonetheless.

Brown asked me what I would do, and I told her: probably nothing. I have accidentally left my wireless device on in the past, and we landed just fine. (For the record, I do comply with all in-flight regulations, even the ones that don't make much sense.)

But I didn't think it was worth the confrontation. Neither did Brown, who let the matter slide.

But her question raises an even bigger question: When do you say something about the behavior of another passenger? For example, should you tattle on a total stranger when he unbuckles his seatbelt before the plane has come to a complete stop? Or do you wait for someone to clearly endanger the welfare of the other passengers, like trying to load a firearm or set an explosive device?

Where do you draw the line?

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