Alec Baldwin Incident Raises Questions About Airlines' Device Policy

NEWS ANALYSIS: The incident involving actor Alec Baldwin and his smartphone on an American Airlines flight earlier this month begs for better ways to manage the use of portable electronic products on commercial aircraft.

I watched a replay of the Dec. 6 news story reporting that actor Alec Baldwin had been thrown off an American Airlines flight in Los Angeles for continuing to use his smartphone since the flight was delayed at the gate for approximately 15 minutes. Baldwin was reportedly told by the flight attendant to turn off his smartphone. When the "30 Rock" star didn't and became belligerent, he was removed from the flight.

The incident involving Baldwin, as well as those that involve everyday people who takes flights for work or vacation, offers a chance to look at a number of safety and airline policy issues that need to be addressed. There is a very practical and primary reason airlines instruct flight attendants to announce that passengers should turn off all electronic products and stow them in a safe place during takeoffs and landings. This ensures that these devices do not become flying missiles if the plane had to come to a sudden stop.

If a passenger is holding a laptop, tablet or smartphone in his or her hands and the plane stops faster than normal, the device could possibly end up traveling through the cabin and hurt another passenger. This is a practical, if unspoken, point of the rules that requires passengers to stow their mobiles gadgets.

However, the bigger, and much more complex issue, concerns the airlines' policy to turn off these portable electronic products before takeoff and landing as they might interfere with the aircraft's navigation and control systems. The Federal Aviation Administration has conducted numerous studies of aircraft in which the passengers have left their portable electronic products on, and no evidence yet exists that these devices negatively affect the ability to take off or land the plane. Of course, use of portable electronic products should be prohibited during the entire length of the flight if it is ever proven that using them interferes with the navigation or control of the plane.

Here's my primary gripe with the airlines, the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission: These agencies need to determine if portable electronic products being left on could cause harm in any way to the aircraft, crew or passengers. And if it does cause harm, then we need to ensure that they are all turned off.

Having a flight attendant simply announce that passengers should turn off their portable electronic products only gives us a false sense of security. Either these products do interfere in some way or they don't. And if smartphones and laptops don't, then what good does it do if the flight attendant announces something that is totally unnecessary?

This leads to an even more serious discussion: Suppose portable electronic products being left on is determined to interfere with the control of the aircraft. Then, we should not only announce that they need to be turned off, but the airlines and the FAA need to come up with a new method to determine if any devices still in use during the flight could cause a problem with the aircraft. You can be assured that if portable electronic products do cause problems to the management and control of the plane during takeoff or landing, it's the bad guys (terrorists) who will try to keep them on to put the flight at risk.

So what does this all mean for us, the passenger who needs to fly frequently to conduct business? I think it's time for airlines to instruct flight attendants to stop announcing that passengers should turn off their portable electronic products. They can certainly continue to ask that these products be stored safely under the seat or in the overhead compartment for takeoffs and landings. However, unwarranted caution about turning laptops and smartphones off is too much.

I noticed that Southwest Airlines recently installed new tablet computer systems in the cockpit to assist pilots with additional information during takeoffs and landings. You can't have pilots turning on tablet PCs in the cockpit during takeoffs and landings if these systems were determined to interrupt the navigation or control of the plane.

Now, let's revisit the Alec Baldwin incident and the disruption caused when he refused to turn off his smartphone-while the plane was still sitting at the gate.While no one should act in a belligerent manner on any flight, it appears to me that the flight attendant should not have instructed him to turn off his smartphone (presuming that the policies had already been changed to remove that requirement). Baldwin could have continued to use his smartphone, nothing bad would have happened to the plane and the resulting media frenzy would never have developed.

Sure, when the plane approached New York, it would be fair and reasonable to tell passengers to store their gadgets in a safe place, such as in the overhead bin or underneath the seat, until the plane had safely landed. That can easily be verified by the flight attendants walking through the aisles.

If we determine that using portable electronic products interferes with aircraft in any serious way, then we need to create methods that can determine when and where a portable electronic product is located and instruct the passenger to turn it off. Just announcing that these devices should be turned off is not good enough. True safety comes when we can ensure that none of these products is on-if, indeed, these devices are proven to interfere with the control of the flight in any way.

We all need to comply with the directives of the flight attendants as they are only following the policies dictated to them by the airlines. However, the airlines need to work more closely with the FAA and FCC to develop a better procedure to manage portable electronic products.

Lives and safety are at stake. Let's all ask the airlines, FCC and FAA to work harder to improve policies and procedures regarding when and where we can use our portable electronic products.