What Alec Baldwin doesn’t know about air travel

Could Words With Friends really bring down a plane? The actor jokes, but cellphone interference can be serious

Topics: Ask the Pilot, Air Travel, Alec Baldwin,

What Alec Baldwin doesn't know about air travelAlec Baldwin on "Saturday Night Live" (Credit: NBC screen shot)

Alec Baldwin refused to shut off his cellphone and got kicked off an American Airlines flight last week, and while Baldwin is now playing the incident for laughs on “Saturday Night Live,” it still raises serious questions.

The Baldwin brouhaha comes on the heels of a splashy New York Times story about the supposed harmlessness of electronic devices. The gist of public perception — certainly the perception of Mr. Baldwin — fueled and refueled by articles like this, is that the prohibition against personal electronic devices is a waste of time.

Well, it is and it isn’t. It depends which gadgets you’re talking about, and for what reasons.

Can a cellphone really interfere with a plane’s systems and avionics? The answer is that it’s highly unlikely, but possible. That’s not the answer you want, I know, but like almost everything in commercial aviation, it depends. For example, although a plane’s electronics are designed with interference in mind, if the shielding is old or faulty there’s a greater potential for trouble.

Even if not actively engaged with a call, a cellphone’s power-on mode dispatches bursts of potentially harmful energy. For this reason, they must be placed in the proverbial “off position” prior to taxiing, as requested during the never tedious pre-takeoff safety briefing. The policy is clearly stated, but obviously unenforced, and we assume the risks are minimal or else phones would be collected or inspected visually rather than relying on the honor system. I’d venture to guess at least half of all cellular phones, whether inadvertently or out of laziness, are left on during flight. That’s about a million phones a day in the United States alone. If indeed this was a recipe for disaster, I think we’d have more evidence by now.

That being stated, phones may have had a role in at least two serious incidents. The key word being “may,” as interference is extraordinarily difficult to trace or prove. Some blame a phone for the unsolved crash of a Crossair regional plane in Switzerland in 2000, claiming that spurious transmissions confused the plane’s autopilot. In another case, a regional jet was forced to make an emergency landing after a fire alarm was triggered by a ringing phone in the luggage compartment.



Those are extremes. What would interference normally look like? You imagine a hapless passenger hitting the Send button when suddenly the airplane flips over or nose-dives into the ground, when in reality it’s liable to be subtle and transient. The electronic architecture of a modern jetliner is vast, to say the least, and most irregularities aren’t exactly heart-stoppers – a warning flag that flickers for a moment and then goes away; a course line that briefly goes askew. Or something unseen. I’m occasionally asked if I have ever personally witnessed cellular interference in a cockpit.  Not to my knowledge — but I can’t say for sure. Planes are large and complicated; minor, fleeting malfunctions of this or that component aren’t uncommon, and their causes are often impossible to determine.

It’s possible that airlines are using the mere possibility of technical complications as a means of avoiding the social implications of allowing cellular conversations on planes. The minute it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that phones are safe, a percentage of fliers will demand the right to use them, pitting one angry group of travelers against another, with carriers stuck in the middle. If, indeed, airlines are playing this game, count me among those sympathetic, and who hope the prohibition stays in place — not out of technical concerns, but for the sake of human decency and some bloody peace and quiet. The sensory bombardment inside airports is overwhelming enough.  The airplane cabin is a last refuge of relative silence (so long as there isn’t a baby wailing). Let’s keep it that way.

As for the restrictions pertaining to computers, iPods and certain other devices during takeoffs and landings, this has nothing to do with electronic interference. In theory, a poorly shielded notebook computer can emit harmful energy, but the main reason laptops need to be put away is to prevent them from becoming high-speed projectiles in the event of an impact or sudden deceleration, and from hampering an evacuation. Your computer is a piece of luggage, and luggage needs to be stowed so it doesn’t kill somebody or get in the way. The same holds for iPads and Kindles. Sure, a book can weigh as much as a Kindle, but this is where the line is drawn.

In the case of iPods and the like, it’s about the headphones and the ability to hear instructions from the crew. During takeoffs and landings, you need to be able to hear and follow instructions if there’s an emergency. That’s hard to do if you’ve got your MP3 player cranked to 11. Similar to the requirement to raise your window shades, it’s in the interest of situational awareness. Excessive?  Maybe, and after all flight attendants don’t go around waking people up or quizzing them on evacuation procedures. But what the heck, it’s a slight safety enhancement that doesn’t cost anything.

The rules are confusing and confounding. It’s also true that carriers have made a bad situation worse through random and sometimes contradictory enforcement of policy, and/or by enacting blanket bans on all devices, including those — like noise-canceling headphones — that are clearly not a threat.  Sure this makes the rules simpler and easier to enforce. It also encourages people to ignore or surreptitiously break them, and it nourishes people’s suspicions that everything an airline tells you is a lie.

Which brings us back to Alec Baldwin. “One of the big changes,” he wrote the other day in an apologetic blog entry on Huffington Post, “is in the increase of the post-9/11, paramilitary bearing of much of the air travel business. September 11th was a horrific day in the airline industry, yet in the wake of that event, I believe carriers and airports have used that as an excuse to make the air travel experience as inelegant as possible.”

There is truth to that. All passengers deserve dignity, straight answers, courtesy and respect; I can’t make excuses for crew members who fail to understand this, or who use the regulatory powers granted to them abusively.

On the other hand, believe me — it takes some pretty bad behavior to get yourself thrown off a plane.  And while the rules aren’t always understood, mostly they are there for good reason. You’re expected and obliged to follow them.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>