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Last week I did a bit of traveling from Dallas to San Diego and back, and had two of the most pleasant flights I’ve had in years. There were no snakes in sight, but there were other reasons that flying was so much less of an ordeal than usual. It was due in equal parts to the piloting skills and/or good weather that resulted in zero turbulence, the less-than-crowded plane that allowed two of us to spread out across three seats, and all my nice little electronic toys that occupied my mind and made the time pass quickly.

I had, in my nifty vertical briefcase that’s so much easier to haul down narrow airplane aisles than a traditional horizontal one, my extremely lightweight and compact Sony TX series laptop and my Samsung i730 Pocket PC phone. My son, who was traveling with me, had his own laptop and a Creative Zen Vision M portable media player. Looking around the plane after we reached cruising altitude, I noticed that about half the passengers were plugged in to their MP3 players, portable DVD players or electronic games, or were working on their computers.

I had to wonder how much of the peace and quiet in the cabin could be attributed to all those electronic gadgets. If deprived of my tech toys, I’d probably just read a book, but lots of people these days aren’t readers, and would probably be talking, drinking, etc. if they weren’t involved in their music, movies or work.

On the flight out, across the aisle and one row up from us was a young mother with a small baby. Unlike on a recent flight to Las Vegas where a crying baby went on and on for almost two hours (eventually reducing the mom to tears, too), we never heard a peep out of this one. I overhead the mother showing her seat mate that she had an earbud up next to the baby’s ear, and she explained that she was playing soft classical music to the baby. It certainly seemed to be working.

I was disappointed to read a couple of weeks ago that Boeing is dropping the Connexion onboard wireless Internet service because most passengers found the $9.95 per hour charges ($26.95 for the entire flight) too expensive. I had hoped the service would spread to domestic airplanes and that the cost would come down. I’d love to be able to surf the Web and send and receive email while I’m in the air.

Even without the ‘Net, though, there’s plenty I can get done with my gadgets. Putting business before pleasure, first I fired up Word on the laptop and finished an article I was writing. While I worked, I was also listening to a talk radio show I’d recorded previously. I had about fifteen hours of radio on the SD card in my PPC phone, and I can listen to them on that device or by popping the card out and inserting it into the built-in SD card reader on the laptop. After finishing the article, I opened up Microsoft Streets and Trips and looked up the route from the car rental agency to my destination in San Diego. All that out of the way, I shut off the radio show and decided to watch a movie. Despite it’s tiny size (under 3 lbs. and under 1 inch thick), the Sony has a built in DVD drive.

Listening to music, radio shows or movies is a great experience with my Shure sound-isolating earphones. They’re a little pricier than other brands, but the sound is fantastic; it’s like being right there in the middle of the movie or sitting onstage with the band. If I’d had them on that flight to Las Vegas, the crying baby might not have been an issue.

On the flight back, I was in the mood to read a book. Thanks to my electronics, though, I didn’t have to lug a heavy hardback or even a paperback onto the plane. Instead, I brought twelve novels – all ebooks that fit on that same 2 GB SD card along with my music and talk programs, and plenty of free space to spare. It’s easy to read on the Pocket PC without even having to break out the laptop. My husband prefers audio books, and you can store plenty of them on an SD card, too. My son spent most of the flights watching past episodes of “House” on the Zen. If only we’d had that in-flight Internet service, I could have used Orb to connect back to my Media Center PC and watch all the programs it had recorded, or even live TV. Oh, well.

One thought struck me as I watched so many of those around me using their own electronics, though. Being the obsessive-compulsive type that I am, I’m always careful to put the phone on flight mode as soon as I board the plane, and the Sony has a convenient switch for turning wireless on and off without opening the lid. Of course, the flight attendants always include a warning to turn off your devices in their standard spiel. But I’ve always wondered how many people ignore or forget those instructions – and just how much of a hazard that really poses to the plane’s navigational systems.

There have been a number of documented cases where pilots got erroneous instrument readings that were tracked down to computers, cell phones and even hearing aids. That’s why FAA rules restrict the use of portable electronic devices during takeoff and approach/landing. Use of cell phones and wi-fi is prohibited at any time during flight by most airline policies. Link here.

Despite all this, there has been an effort by some passengers and members of the cell phone industry to get the rules relaxed banning cell phone calls during flight, in particular. We saw during the September 11 terrorist attacks that many of Flight 93’s victims used their cell phones to find out from people on the ground what was going on. On the other hand, cell phones and other portable electronics can easily be adapted to detonate explosives devices, too.

But the more insidious threat is perhaps the unintentional interference posed by signals emanated by our tech toys. David Watrous, president of the RTCA (Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics), who testified in July 2004 before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on aviation hearing about the use of cell phone on aircraft, said that all portable electronic devices have the potential to interfere with avionics (radio navigation signals), especially when the plane is close to the ground. You can read his testimony here.

There have also been some “air rage” incidents that occurred when passengers were told to turn off their electronics. It appears that some of those “electronics addicts” take their habits very seriously. There are probably many other passengers who think they’re complying when they aren’t. With some devices, it’s not at all clear when they’re completely off and when they’re just in standby mode.

And even if allowing cell phone calls during flight doesn’t pose a risk to our safety, it certainly carries a potential threat to our peace of mind. Do you really want to listen to your fellow travelers babbling endlessly to their friends while you try to work or sleep? We already have to put up with that in grocery stores and restaurants.

Hmmm … it’s beginning to look as if electronics on planes could be as scary as snakes. MSNBC is running a poll on which you’d rather see on your next flight: snakes or cell phones. So far, the snakes are way out ahead. You can cast your vote here.

What do you think about electronics on planes? The best thing to happen to flight since the Wright Brothers, or a menace that should be eradicated? What electronic devices do you use on the plane? Do you always remember to turn off your devices when you’re supposed to? Have you seen other passengers using their cell phones or other prohibited electronics in flight? Do you think it really poses a safety threat or are the experts just being overly cautious? Would you like to see the ban on cell phone calls during flight lifted? 

Deb Shinder, MVP