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Alec Baldwin, Fellow Traveler

“Daddy, who was Alec Baldwin?” my future daughter may ask me one day.

“He was a terrific actor,” I will reply. “In fact, let’s watch one of my favorite episodes of 30 Rock, and in a few years, I might allow you to watch Glengarry Glen Ross, but there’s a lot of bad language in it.”

My future daughter will have difficulty believing, however, that Baldwin was actually once kicked off a plane for playing Words with Friends (with apparently a few Glengarry Glen Ross antics thrown in as well). “Back in the day,” I will try to explain, “we had to sit on planes for hours at a time as flights were endlessly delayed. To make matters worse, we had to turn off all our electronic devices, although no one knew exactly why.”

Baldwin is certainly not the only person to push back, or at least question a rule that is the most mysterious, if not patently absurd, of all the slings and arrows of outrageous plane travel. After all, it is not grounded whatsoever in scientific evidence. 

While a number of independent studies have been conducted, they have found no evidence that cell phones or other electronic devices interfere with an airplane’s navigational equipment. On the other hand, a confidential study by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group, that was leaked to ABC News did claim a link between cell phones and equipment interference. There are many reasons why this study is suspect, namely, because it was conducted by a trade organization with a vested interest in the outcome that offered no testable methodology.

Publications like Scientific American have suggested the government needs to “enlist a competent technical organization to characterize the onboard radio-frequency environment more accurately.” As for whether the IATA study is to be trusted or if it’s a bunch of baloney, the most important thing to keep in mind is that not a single plane crash or even a near miss has ever been linked to the use of a personal electronic device on a plane. 

The transportation agencies, who passed their legal authority on this matter over to the airline industry, say they prefer to err on the side of caution. And yet, some electrical engineers suggested to The New York Times that keeping your electronic device on, instead of shutting it down, may actually be safer. Restarting electronic devices causes unnecessary interference when the “electric current passes through every part of the gadget, including GPS, Wi-Fi, cellular radio and microprocessor.” In other words, according to the Times article, that’s the “equivalent of waking someone up with a dozen people yelling into bullhorns.”

So perhaps we should be thanking Alec Baldwin for keeping us safe! Please just don’t freak out on the flight attendants. Air rage is another issue for another day. 


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