STUDY: More Alec Baldwins on Planes -- Or at Least More IPad Users

(Photo (cc) Flickr user wader)

Alec Baldwin is not alone. Device usage on airplanes is up dramatically and becoming a more integrated part of the travel experience, according to a study underway right now. DePaul University researchers are counting the number of passengers who are using mobile devices while traveling on buses, trains and planes.

“Our data collectors have been astounded at how many tablets are being used... These devices are almost ideally suited for working in crowded spaces,” Professor Joe Schwieterman of DePaul tells Transportation Nation.

Of course, most people don't get ejected from flights for their Words with Friends addiction as the irascible 30 Rock star did last week (full disclosure he also hosts a podcast at WNYC, a partner station for this website). Baldwin got in analtercation with flight attendants after being told to turn off his iPhone. He promptly took to the internet to complain about how flying precludes mobile device usage, a frustration echoed and re-Tweeted by many of his fans prompting American Airlines to reach out to Baldwin publicly -- and Greyhound to invite him to ride the bus.

The stories differ on the ejection details, but it had something to do with Baldwin's use of his iPhone to play the scrabble-like game while the plane was delayed on the tarmac. According to Schwieterman that behavior is increasingly common--the device usage, not arguing with flight attendants. Schwieterman is kicking off a new study to measure on board device usage on planes, trains and buses. “Advances in technology are giving people incentives to leave their cars at home and travel on public modes,” he says. And his team of researchers have observed huge jumps in tablet usage in the preliminary findings he said, noting that on one flight, 25 percent of passengers were using tablets.

Schwieterman's team from the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul is riding as passengers and counting the number of people using mobile devices at randomly selected points.
By the end of the data-collection process on December 20, the researchers will have observed more than 6,000 intercity bus and train travelers and about 2,000 airline passengers. They'll compare that data to previous years' and combine it with earlier research on how technology and access to on board services like WiFi are affecting people's travel choices.

Surveys of curbside bus travelers last summer, for instance, showed that more than 60 percent of them factored in free WiFi when deciding between the bus and other options.  Ninety-one percent said they planned to use some sort of electronic device during their trip. So as more people use more devices, access to on board internet could become a greater deciding factor for passengers as they choose between driving, flying or riding.

"The advent of the cell phone many years ago favored automobile travel, but more recent advances, such as texting, Facebook, and Twitter, favor public transportation," Schwieterman says. "We think the ability to use portable technology is a big reason bus and rail travel has risen so sharply in recent years.”

Curbside buses have been the fastest growing mode of intercity travel in recent years, while within cities public transit ridership also edged up since last year.

The researchers are paying particular attention to how tablets, such as iPads, Kindles, and Nooks, have “burst onto the scene." We'll report on the full results when they are released in the coming months.