Air travel myths dispelled

Jesse Brown: Body scanners don’t work and phones are safe for takeoff

Maybe Louis CK is right: air travel is a miracle and we should all just shut up about the minor inconveniences that come along with it.

Or perhaps we can appreciate the wonder of aviation while maintaining a healthy skepticism toward authorities determined to keep us in a fog of ignorance and anxiety about it. Will 2013 be the year we finally challenge their baffling and invasive demands? Some recent developments have me hoping:

  • A former TSA agent has been cheerfully tooting little whistles on his old employer. Among the revelations on the Taking Sense Away blog (get it?) are that fellow agents routinely laugh at nude photos of passengers rendered in radiation by backscatter machines, which the blogger calls “useless” and potentially harmful. Another blogger, Jonathan Corbett, posted a Youtube video documenting a pretty credible and face-palmingly simple backscatter hack that allows any metal object to pass through the machine undetected (Spoiler alert: Apparently all you need to do is put the bomb/gun/drugs/Altoids tin in your side pocket).
  • The FAA, meanwhile, is under increased pressure to admit that the ban on cellphones and tablet use during takeoff and landing is based on bogus science. One U.S. senator has demanded proof that wireless gadgets create interfere, on behalf of a public “growing increasingly skeptical of prohibitions.”The FCC is demanding answers, and the New York Times’ Nick Bilton has done a terrific job of consistently challenging the FAA’s spurious claims that it’s okay for pilots to use iPads but not passengers because, when it comes to radio wave emissions, “two iPads are different than 200″ (they aren’t).

We’ve been playing along for more than a decade, submitting to illogical little rituals in the name of security. In 2002 I was scared too, and probably would have hopped on one foot in my underwear while singing the national anthem if someone in a uniform told me it would keep planes from exploding.

Today, I think it’s not selfish but fair and necessary to question some of this security theatre.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown




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Air travel myths dispelled

  1. Aside from the (likely non-existent) threat of RF interference, there is another reason why laptops, mobile phones, and tablets should be stowed during takeoff and landing: If the plane unexpectedly makes a violent maneuver, these items can become formidable projectiles. I think that’s a valid reason to put the toys away.

    • That’s a good reason to have them be secured, yes. But it’s no reason to require they be powered down. So if your phone is in your pocket and you’re talking on your bluetooth headset, that should be just fine.

    • I really don’t think it is about “formidable projectiles”. If that were the reason for making people put away laptops, etc., I am certain they would not be allowing parents to hold children under 2 years of age on their laps instead of insisting they are buckled into a child safety seat….talk about formidable projectiles!
      One of the issues is that they want people “listening” for directions. They make everyone take off their earphones during take off. Can you imagine everyone talking on a cellphone while the stewards are trying to relay the instructions to passengers regarding how to act in case of an emergency???? What a nightmare. Remember some people might actually be on their first flight and need the info.

      • Has anybody out there ever understood what they are saying over those ridiculously cheap PA systems in airplanes? Not only is the sound quality horrible, the airplane engine and cabin noises are far and away louder and the cabin crew or recordings talk so fast you get the feeling that is their last words in life and they just have to get them out quickly before something happens.

  2. Cellphones on planes were already investigated by Mythbusters. They concluded that all modern airplanes were safe against cellphone interference.

  3. Is there nowhere we can be without listening to people talking into thin air? Whatever happened to manners ? It is REALLY annoying to try and sleep on a long haul flight and have someone next to you jabbering away at their machine – and that is people playing GAMES…. Thank goodness for train companies who have carriages where cell phones are BANNED. I wish planes would do likewise. There is NOTHING – and I mean nothing – that cannot wait till you land.

  4. Another question: the confiscation of “weapons” in carry-on. Really, tweasers, hand cream in a sealed tube? Surely a dedicated terrorist could find and conceal much more deadly tools of destruction.

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