Every holiday season, as air travel picks up, people start wondering why, exactly, they need to switch off their electronic devices during takeoff and landing. And, weirdly enough, no one ever seems to have an entirely satisfying answer.


(Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

The Atlantic’s James Fallows has been running an entertaining series of posts on this topic all month, eliciting feedback from pilots and people inside the industry (here’s a good starter post). Many of his correspondents think the FAA is being overly cautious and that modern aircraft equipment isn’t so fragile (see here for more). Some emphasize the worry that handheld electronic devices could turn into dangerous projectiles during takeoff. Others think the rules are mainly about making sure passengers are attentive during key flight phases (of course, that concern doesn’t seem to extend to people reading old-fashioned books and magazines). Still others insist cellphone use should be banned from planes less for technical reasons and more to prevent loud talkers from driving other passengers into a frothing rage.

And some commentators suspect that the rules amount to nothing more than a petty form of social control. Here’s tech columnist Kevin Kelly grumbling about the time he had to turn off his (likely harmless) camera: “I immediately asked a United pilot what I can do if a flight attendant makes an unreasonable request? His answer was that it was in my best interest to obey, no matter what. That means that the usage policy is dictated by the most unreasonable party. I take this absurd request as another example of a policy that has gotten out of hand because it is not based on evidence.”

So there you have it. An explanation. Sort of.