June 3, 2013 at 10:27 AM ET
According to a new study, fliers will have to forgo 105 million hours of personal electronic devices (PEDs) this year due to FAA’s ban on their use during takeoff and landing. That's not only fewer Words With Friends sessions, but a whole lot of missed opportunities to get some real work done.
The productivity drain is not insignificant. Conducted by researchers at the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University, the study, Tablets Take Flight, notes that with more travelers carrying more devices, the amount of “disrupted technological activity” has soared 104 percent since 2010.
“Three years ago, many people just carried smartphones, which aren’t of much use on a flight [due to FAA’s ongoing ban on using cellular technology],” professor Joe Schwieterman, who directed the study, told NBC News. “Now, they have e-readers, DVD players, miniature tablets… [The ban] creates both a hassle and an impediment to productivity.”
As an elementary-school principal in Albuquerque, Frank Chiki has experienced plenty of both in recent years as a member of the executive committee of the National Council of Teachers of English.
“I had to read a lot on those trips — agenda items, budget analyses, new proposals — in order to comment effectively,” he told NBC News. “That time between takeoff and 10,000 feet and then between 10,000 feet and landing was a lot of downtime. When your trip involves multiple legs, it can add up to a couple of hours a day where you can’t get anything done.”
According to Schwieterman’s analysis, the typical flight entails 13 minutes of PED-prohibited time during takeoff and another 15 minutes during approach and landing. It doesn’t include downtime encountered during tarmac delays and other non-standard operations.
“The FAA needs to articulate why it feels that the evidence supports a continuation of its present policy, which, of course, has resulted in an across-the-board ban all devices during takeoff/landing regardless of the type of equipment involved, and consider a more nuanced policy,” say the researchers.
Which remains the crux of the issue. According to FAA rules, airlines can allow the use of PEDs during all aspects of flights provided the airline can prove the gadgets are safe -- a costly proposition that would require the testing of a large and ever-changing array of devices. Aircraft, too, differ in their ability to shield crucial systems, with older planes more susceptible to interference.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that the jury is still out on the degree to which PEDs can actually cause interference to flight systems. No cases have conclusively tied aircraft problems to the use of such devices.
Pressure continues to build to end or at least modify the ban. Passengers wonder why iPads can now be used on the flight deck but not in the cabin, and one recent study showed that as many as 30 percent of fliers have left a device on during takeoff or landing, apparently without causing problems.
An FAA working group is studying the issue. The group, whose members represent airlines, flight crews, passengers and electronics manufacturers, is expected to report its findings to FAA in July.
For its part, the Chaddick study takes no position on the interference issue, suggesting only that “FAA’s ‘go slow’ approach to assessing the ban comes at an underappreciated high cost to the traveling public.”
“There are few other circumstances where people have to break their routine and shut off their devices — going to church or a job interview — but I’m not sure flying is one of them,” said Schwieterman.
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.