Apparently putting your iPhone in airplane mode is not the digital equivalent of returning your seatback to the upright position.
A flight attendant for ATA Airlines recently asked a flier watching a movie midflight on the way to Hawaii to shut off his iPhone, not for the perfectly reasonable reason that the man was watching the inane Jennifer-Love Hewitt vehicle I Know What You Did Last Summer, but because you're not allowed to use cell phones inflight. Casey, the iPhone user, told Consumerist that he tried several times to explain to the flight attendant that the iPhone was in "airplane mode," with all the radios disabled. But the flight attendants did not accept that explanation, and continued to insist that FAA regulations prohibit talking on cell phones when the cabin door is closed, despite the fact that Casey wasn't actually talking and the fact they were over the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
As happens with these things, people got huffy, tempers flared, and Casey eventually found himself talking to a few bemused policemen in Hawaii. He reported that the flight attendant changed his story several times, first telling police that the airplane wasn't shielded for any type of electronic device (although apparently everybody else's MP3 players were fine), then telling police the plane wasn't shielded for "ONLY (emphasis his) phones in airplane mode." Casey was allowed to go, and apparently was not sentenced to watch Heartbreakers in its entirety to get a better sense of what might have provoked the flight attendant.
I'm sure there's more to this story. I'm playing a game of phone tag with ATA, and decided to post and update later if I hear back from them. It also brings up a few interesting points.
First of all, "airplane mode" doesn't appear to be a universally defined state of being by the FCC, FAA, the airlines or the mobile phone industry, and perhaps it should. Apple's Web page on the iPhone's airplane mode clearly states, "If you turn on airplane mode, the wireless features of iPhone are disabled, and if allowed by the aircraft operator and applicable laws and regulations (emphasis mine), you can continue to use the non-wireless features after takeoff.
Some airlines explicitly state that you can use a mobile phone in airplane mode over 10,000 feet. Others don't get into it, and just say you can't use mobile phones while in the air. So it might very well be ATA's policy to prohibit the use of mobile phones under any circumstances, just like it's their policy to shoehorn passengers into seats best suited for those under 5 feet tall.
I also wonder if smartphones will eventually force the FAA to make a decision about the use of mobile phones during flights. There may be legitimate reasons to disable wireless networking or calling on airplanes, whether those are technical concerns both in the air and on the ground, or whether it's merely a nod to flyers who don't want to hear one end of a five-hour conversation. But there's an awful lot of things you can do with mobile computers that don't involve wireless networking, from listening to music or watching movies to playing games or even composing documents with an expandable keyboard. As long as people are allowed to use their iPods, laptops, and portable DVD players above 10,000 feet, it seems silly to prohibit the use of a properly silenced smartphone just because it also happens to be a phone.
But we're talking about airlines and the government, so silly things happen all the time. Some consistency on mobile phone usage would be nice from the airline industry, but I'd prefer they figure out an whole new operating model that actually works before taking on matters such as these.