How do you know that the rules restricting electronics on planes are impractical? When you see a crew member openly texting at 36,000 feet.
That’s what Peter Zapalo says he saw on a recent Southwest Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Denver. On his way to the lavatory, Zapalo, an exercise physiologist from Philadelphia, spotted a crew member who appeared to be messaging on his BlackBerry.
“I was maybe two feet from him and you could see his text, a response, and his reply,” Zapalo said. “I’m sure passengers are sneaking around and doing this all the time, but c’mon — the flight attendant?”
Zapalo wrote to Southwest expressing his concern and received a form letter thanking him for his message, followed a few weeks later by an explanation that the attendant must have been using a handheld device to “update alcohol sales.”
The conflict between an always-on society and the rules on the use of in-flight electronics is hardly new. The Federal Communications Commission prohibits the use of cellphones while airborne. But passengers have refused to turn off their handsets on planes since there have been handsets. And with a rise in the number of wireless-enabled planes — the largest provider of airborne communications, Gogo Inflight, offers hotspots on more than 700 commercial aircraft — the problem appears to be taking off.
Asked about the texting flight attendant, a Southwest Airlines spokesman said that Zapalo hadn’t necessarily seen the employee break the law. “Generally speaking, it is completely feasible for someone to text or e-mail while their device is in airplane mode,” said Chris Mainz. “Therefore, they would not be transmitting any signals and still be within the guidelines of the FAA. The text or e-mail would not actually transmit until the phone is back on.”
Janet Spencer, co-author of the book “Betty in the Sky With a Suitcase!” (Riverbend Publishing, 2010), a flight attendant’s memoir, says the clashes between crew members and passengers happen constantly, for several reasons.
“First, more and more people are becoming more and more attached to their personal electronic devices and cellphones,” she told me. “It is almost a physical extension of some people, like an electronic limb they can’t be separated from.”
Another reason passengers are fighting over their PDAs is that they’re under more pressure than ever, she says. “Having to arrive so early, all the added security measures, the shoe removal, the liquid restrictions, and now full-body scans, have amped people up, irritating them every step of the way as they proceed on their trip,” she said.
She’s right. And I’m one of those strung-out air travelers, permanently tethered to my iPhone. On a recent flight from Dallas to Orlando, after the cabin doors closed, I couldn’t help myself: I had to check e-mail one last time. My 5-year-old son, who had obediently powered down his video game when the attendants asked, gave me the look. A few moments later, I got the same look from a flight attendant. I reluctantly switched the phone off.