“Why has the regulation remained in force for so long despite the lack of solid evidence to support it? Human minds are notoriously overzealous “cause detectors.” When two events occur close in time, and one plausibly might have caused the other, we tend to assume it did. There is no reason to doubt the anecdotes told by airline personnel about glitches that have occurred on flights when they also have discovered someone illicitly using a device.
The odds that all the passengers on a flight have properly turned off their phones are infinitesimal.
But when thinking about these anecdotes, we don’t consider that glitches also occur in the absence of illicit gadget use. More important, we don’t consider how often gadgets have been in use when flights have been completed without a hitch. Our survey strongly suggests that there are multiple gadget violators on almost every flight.
Fear is a powerful motivator, and precaution is a natural response. Regulators are loath to make policies less restrictive, out of a justifiable concern for passenger safety. It is easy to visualize the horrific consequences should a phone cause a plane to crash, so the FAA imposes this inconvenience as a precaution.
Once a restriction is in place, though, removing it becomes a challenge because every day without a gadget-induced accident cements our belief that the status quo is right and justified. Unfortunately, this logic is little better than that of Homer Simpson, who organized an elaborate Bear Patrol in the city of Springfield and exulted in the absence of bear sightings that ensued.
We are not suggesting that people should disobey the current rules. But we believe strongly that policies like the FAA’s ban should be based on evidence rather than on fear. The evidence shows that nearly every flight must have some phones and gadgets on, and those flights have not been falling out of the sky.”