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Frequent fliers enjoy the disconnect

| Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Illustration: Michael McParlane | Trib Total Media
Illustration by Michael McParlane

University of Pittsburgh professor Bopaya Bidanda's expertise is in industrial engineering.

Given that he has logged an average of 110,000 air miles each year for the past five years, flying might not be far behind in his base of knowledge. He travels to conduct engineering school accreditations worldwide.

Bidanda, who recently returned from a 24,000-mile trip, used to use electronic devices while flying, but in recent years, as airplanes have become more crowded, he prefers to reserve his time for reading and conceptualizing ideas.

“I feel it's the last bastion for personal professional space in which one can think, read and write without interruptions, except for the occasional request for a beverage,” he says.

The educator is not alone.

A new study by DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development finds that technology use on airlines remained virtually flat and continues to lag behind other modes of transportation, including buses and trains, suggesting that the relaxation of the Federal Aviation Administration policy on operating personal electronic devices is having little effect.

The new policy allows use of certain devices during take offs and landings but, according to the report, appears to have been greeted unenthusiastically by flyers who are still unable to connect to Wi-Fi at certain times, send text messages or place phone calls.

Discount city-to-city bus services, such as Megabus, experienced the fastest increase in technology use, a rate that outdistanced Amtrak, conventional bus and air travel by a wide margin.

Many airline passengers opt to devote their time to reading print material, eating, sleeping and relaxing.

Frequent flier Ryan O'Hare of Bellevue, a technology consultant for a global technology consulting firm, commutes to work from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles most Mondays, returning home on Thursdays. He says the FAA's change in rules permitting some devices from take off to landing “is really just allowing passengers to use them in a nonconnected mode and only allows the connection above 10,000 feet to wi-fi only.”

While he can use his iPad during take off, it cannot be connected to anything.

“So I'm relegated to playing solitaire or doing something that doesn't require a connection. Previously, they didn't even allow devices to be on during take off and landing. That's really the only change,” he says. “This is why the FAA ruling has been greeted ‘unenthusiastically': because it really isn't that much different than the previous rules.”

O'Hare says he tends to just stay “unconnected” and enjoys the quiet time — “short of any crying children, that is.”

The travel bubble

Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute, calls flights one of the last strongholds where reading material is the norm. He says some passengers enjoy being where they can't easily be reached by the outside world.

Kristy Bronder, program manager for Pitt's Katz Graduate School of Business' “Business of Humanity” project, on which Bidanda is a project director, admits, “I guess I enjoy the travel bubble.”

While she is somewhat surprised that people aren't taking full advantage of using their electronic devices when flying, she agrees it is nice to have some time away from those kinds of distractions and “unplug.”

“Traveling can be stressful, so it does help that you have a reason to just relax and read and not check email every five minutes,” Bronder says. “On the whole, I spent very little time using personal electronics while flying.”

The survey results also do not surprise fairly frequent flier Brady Bottegal of Lower Burrell, a technical resource manager for a major Chicago-based technology company who oversees a staff in four states. “I think people who travel are creatures of habit. Maybe in time, they will adjust to the new rules,” he says.

He often sees people on the plane working feverishly on their laptops. “I think, ‘Maybe I should be doing that, too.' But I resist the notion since my computer always seems comfortable under the seat in front of me,” he says.

He doesn't pack a tablet or e-reader, though he says he sees plenty of those on flights. “I'm content with a magazine or a regular book made of paper,” he says. He does pull out his iPod on occasion. “It's a good way to discourage that person next to you who insists on talking your ear off for the next two hours.”

Bottegal leaves his phone on until told to turn it off.

“It's always unsettling to be out of touch, but once I get accustomed to being disconnected, I don't give it another thought until the plane touches down,” he says. “As soon as we start to taxi to the gate, I scramble to turn the phone back on and see what I missed. Seldom is it anything important. Imagine that, the world didn't end just because I was out of touch for a couple of hours!”

Dan Speicher, a Pittsburgh-area freelance photographer who travels internationally for his work, is philosophical about the subject. “I really don't want to spend time staying connected to the world that I am leaving, so I use my time on flights to relax,” he says.

Jeff Hartung of Salem, Westmoreland County, can relate. “Flying is the time to recharge the body before my next meeting. It's time to get caught up on reading and sleeping,” he says.

Hartung is director of pro-football services for Rawlings Sporting Goods out of St. Louis. Seven months of the year, he flies two to three days weekly to all of the NFL cities.

“I can honestly say I have been online at 30,000 feet three times in the last three months of traveling,” he says. “But I do see some people consumed (with electronics) the whole time on flights, but the majority are sleeping or reading. This is where I get most of my reading done.”

James Acre of Natrona Heights, corporate maintenance auditor for UniFirst, flies every other week throughout the United States and understands the survey results. “Electronic devices still need to be powered down for take off and landing. Some people may feel it is a pain to retrieve their devices after take off and then put them away for landing,” says Acre, who never uses his computer for work during flights.

“If it's easy to connect, people will want to stay connected,” says Patrick Treado of Point Breeze, founder and CTO of Chemimage, Pittsburgh. He is not convinced that most people prefer to be free of connection while on a flight.

“I'd prefer to stay connected, if it's easy to do so,” he says, “meaning as seamless as connecting to a hot spot at work or at home.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or

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