Digital Manners: Texting on Takeoff

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
Oct. 18 2011 1:52 PM

Texting on Takeoff (Transcript)

Farhad Manjoo and Emily Yoffe debate whether it’s OK to tattle on a fellow airplane passenger who’s flouting the rules.

ILLO_digital-manners-podcast

Farhad Manjoo:  Please turn off all portable electronics for the full duration of the flight.

Emily Yoffee: I'm Emily Yoffe, Slate's Dear Prudence advice columnist.

Farhad: I'm Slate's technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, and this is Manners for the Digital Age.

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Emily:  Today’s question comes from a woman who gets nervous when fellow passengers ignore the in-flight announcement. She writes, “Dear Farhad and Emily, several times recently I’ve been on an airplane and notice the passenger sitting next to me sending text messages after we were told to turn off our electronics. The second time this happened the person was clearly trying to hide her cell phone from the flight crew. I became very angry that she would willingly disregard the rules, possibly putting everyone in danger. Still, I didn’t know how to handle the situation without sounding like a busybody or tattle-tale. Is it any of my business? Is there a way to confront the situation without making the rest of the flight sitting two inches from the culprit unbearable, or am I just overreacting?” Signed, A Reluctant Air Marshal.

Before we get to the actual etiquette question, Farhad, I know you’ve researched this issue. First of all, let’s establish whether there is any danger in the person disregarding the “turn off your electronics” and continuing to text while in flight.

Farhad:  What I was able to find in the research on this is there has been suggested to be a theoretical possibility that the electromagnetic interference caused by your cell phone might affect the instrument panels in the airplane.

But in many tests—and the most definitive one was conducted by Boeing—they found that when they actually tried to use portable electronic devices while the plane was taking off, they couldn’t replicate any interference. All of the plane’s instruments are heavily shielded.

It seems like there’s a theoretical possibility there might be some danger, but there’s no actual danger that your use of the cell phone or other electronics is going to cause any danger in the plane.

Emily: That’s very illuminating. So, in fact, the rule is kind of ridiculous. However, my gym posts a sign saying, “Don’t use your cell phone while you’re on the exercise floor.” Now, if someone violates that rule, they’re being kind of obnoxious. But, so what?

I would say an airplane is an entirely different environment. There are national security concerns; there truly are safety concerns. When smoking was first banned, there was a case where someone went to the restroom for a cigarette and literally set the plane on fire. Fortunately, the pilot was able to get down.

There are all sorts of rules that I think have to be obeyed in this environment. If this rule needs to be changed, it should be done so. Write to your member of Congress, the FAA, etc. That’s how it should happen.

I think, in this case, it would be fine to get up, go to the restroom and say to a member of the flight crew, “I’m in row 23. My seatmate is texting. In a few minutes when I sit down, can you walk by? If she’s still doing it, can you say something?”

Farhad:  I agree with you that there are lots of silly rules. The whole “take your shoes off” rule is stupid. But we obey them because that’s just part of the culture of air travel and you do what you have to do to fly.

I do think people should obey this rule. I obey it. I don’t use my electronic devices when I’m not supposed to. The question here is whether you should tell on other people who are disobeying this rule. I think you should if there were some danger to what they’re doing. But because I think this is not dangerous, I think that this women would be a busybody or a tattle-tale doing it.

I think that it’s very difficult to tell on this person without being noticed and without making the whole flight very uncomfortable. Your suggestion about going to the flight attendant, I don’t think that would work because they usually enforce this rule after they’ve turned on the seatbelt light and it’s when they’re taking off and landing when you can’t leave your seat. So I don’t really know how you would do this discreetly.

Emily:  No, no. This is in flight. You’re in the middle of the flight and your seatmate is texting.

Farhad:  So, the rule is that you can’t use any portable electronic device, anything with an on/off switch, while the flight is taking off before it reaches 10,000 feet and during landing. In between that, during the course of the flight, you are allowed to use portable electronic devices—laptops, Kindles, and things like that—and you’re also allowed to use cell phones if you have something on your phone called “airplane mode.”

Airplane mode basically turns off the radio on your phone. You can look at your e-mail on your phone; you can play games on your phone; you can even write texts on your phone, but it won’t send the texts.

I think that it’s difficult for somebody to tell your seatmate to tell what you’re doing on your phone, and you may be using it appropriately.

Emily:  You’re right. If it’s during that brief time you can’t get out of your seat, you’ve just got a very obnoxious seatmate, because as ridiculous as it is, I don’t think it’s up to each individual passenger to decide which flight rules I will obey—“I’m not putting my seat up and I’m not putting my tray table up.” It’s ridiculous. It’s not a good idea to let the breakdown of order on airplanes happen.

Farhad:  I do want to reiterate. I think as silly as this rule is I think people should obey it, just for the reason that you stated. I don’t want people to just flout rules that they think are silly during air travel, because there are many such rules.

Emily: The bottom line is Farhad has beat me back with his superior technical knowledge. If the person is violating this rule during take-off or landing, you can’t even get out of your seat to do anything. So be it. But we both agree: just obey the rules.

Farhad:  Yes—obey the rules. Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age.  Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com

Emily: You can also join our new Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week.  Go to Facebook.com/digitalmanners.

Farhad: And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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