Airplane nonsense

So many of the rules and regulations regarding what happens on airplanes seem completely ridiculous.

For starters, there is the requirement that you turn off your electronic devices for takeoff and landing. Whatis the point of making me turn off my iPod? I guarantee you that it does not interfere with the airplane’s instruments (or if it does, I have made life very difficult for some pilots recently by breaking this rule). A pilot friend of mine tells me that the rule is in place so that, in the event of a crash, the electronic device doesn’t start things on fire. Please. If we crash, there will be plenty of fire either way.

Next, there is the requirement about only using plastic knives. It doesn’t seem like a table knife is a great way to take over an airplane to start with. If I needed a weapon, I would just break a wine bottle open. I’d rather have a broken bottle than a table knife in a fight any day.

Third, there is the fact that the Air Marshals are completely obvious if you are looking for them. I fly enough on United that I get to board the airplane in the first group. Sometimes there are a couple of beefy guys already sitting in first class who didn’t get on with the rest of the passengers. They scan you intently as you get on the plane. They have almost no luggage. Hmm, I wonder if those might be air marshals?

Finally, when they read the safety instructions at the beginning of the flight, they go through the whole song and dance about “in the unlikely event of a water landing…” and all the precautions in place to deal with that happening. My friend Peter Thompson did some research on this. At least going back to 1970, which by my estimation encompasses over 150 million commercial airline flights, there has not been a single water landing! (Some planes explode and fall into the water, but he couldn’t find anything resembling a water landing where any of those instructions might help you.) So perhaps 15 billion customer trips have heard that 10-15 second set of instructions without it ever being useful to anyone.

My latest complaint is that the U.S. airlines have not yet put in wireless internet. Some foreign airlines including Lufthansa have. My guess is that there are no technical limitations at this point, but probably big regulatory ones that serve little purpose.

In general, it seems like many of the rules in place exist devoid of any sense of economic reality concerning costs and benefits. Many of these regulations impose costs (maybe small ones, but costs just the same) while providing essentially no benefit (e.g. the water landing stuff). Consumers get utility out of using their electronic devices, reclining their seats, etc. The regulations, however, are written as if safety (real or imagined) is the only goal.


ahh...the life of an academic. Posting on his blog at 2:00 AM on a saturday night.


Actually, I've heard that there have been effects from radios, etc. Apparently during big sporting events, there would be anomalies in the controls. Threaten to confiscate any radios found on board, and they go away. Granted, one battery-powered device won't do much, but get a hundred of them togather, and there might be something.


I sometimes wanted to listen to a radio while in flight.

I was interested to note that the Boeing 737s flown by Reno Air permitted passengers to use radios, while the other airlines did not. Then, when Reno Air was bought out by American, they changed the rule, and radios became a no-no.

So the same device was a unsafe on the aircraft of one line, but OK on identical equipment of another.


would probably qualify as a water landing. About 50 passengers survived. The same web site lists several "ran off the runway into shallow water" sort of incidents as well.


I always thought that the "signal interferance" was just an excuse airlines used to scare you into turning them off. I think the real reason is they want you to be more alert in case there is a problem, not focused on your music, rather on instructions.


I don't like to go sailing without a parachute.


I've long thought that it is all ritual, to reassure and calm the passengers. After all, they're about to travel 500 mph, 6 miles in the air. Other silliness:

o insert the flap into the buckle
o metal forks allowed (but not metal knives)
o security inspections (failure rate is ~100% given determined evaders)
o 1-way ticket=extra inspection

Two things now protect us:
o the locked cabin door
o the readiness of crew and passengers to fight back.


Maybe we've just had it all wrong all along. From

"At high altitudes, such as would be achieve from an in-flight aircraft, the handheld unit places its signal over several cellular base stations, preventing other cellular users within range of those base stations from using the same frequency. This would increase the number of blocked or dropped cellular calls."

So, it's supposedly done to "protect" those on the ground and prevent network overload, not to protect the airplanes electronics. And let's be realistic, in today's Crackberry World, it would be the cellular devices, above all, that would be used the most. iPods would be a distant second.

As for the plastic knife issue, I'm surprised your response would not be to change the wine bottle. Just because something dangerous is available doesn't mean you make safer items more dangerous. I admit that I've never tried to stab someone, nor cut someone, with a metal nor plastic knife, but given the choice, I'll take the metal one everyday. In this instance, maybe airlines should find a safer delivery method for the wine, a la plastic beer bottles at sporting events, instead of returning to plastic knives.

Lastly, with regards to water landings, do you honestly think any airline would survive the lawsuits and public outcry if those water landing instructions didn't exist and there was a water landing where the instructions would have made a difference between lives lost and lives saved?

With regards to the public outcry, just look at New Orleans. A lack of a real disaster readiness plan is complained about AFTER it could have been used. Where was the complaining beforehand, when there was a low percentage chance of New Orleans getting a direct hit from a category 4/5 hurricane?

Just because there's a low percentage of something happening doesn't mean there should be no preparations for it, particularly for a "fast" emergency situation like landing in water where the passengers will not have time to learn what to do while the plane is going down. I would hope that San Francisco has plans for what to do in the case of a 7.0+ earthquake even though, if counted in terms of hours, there is a low percentage chance of one happening.

On a funny note, I once flew on a flight where the flight attendant said, "In the HIGHLY unlikely event of a water landing, since we won't be flying over any water..." Everybody on the plane got a good laugh out of that one.



Please, please don't turn into John Stossel—his “give me a break” segments only serve to eliminate any fleeting respect I may once have had. Complaining about ridiculous things in this way encourages people to act on emotion instead of thinking things through, exactly the opposite message from what I thought you were promoting.

You could have written about your eventual conclusion – that the government should not consider safety above all else (using these as examples). Or about how people overweight small probabilities and insist on absolute peace of mind. Or about the difference between economists' and non-economists' thinking. There were so many interesting possibilities.

If you want to argue for the elimination of something that is seemingly inane, at least take the slightest bit of time to determine, or at least speculate, how and why it came about and reasons for its continued presence (there is always a reason/benefit, sometimes many reasons as people have already pointed out). Only then can you make an intelligent case for change.

p.s. Why do you think they give the water instructions even if the plane doesn't *plan* to fly over water?

To add to others' information: (the main page of the link referred to above)



The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers recently did a study where they put an instrument called a spectrum analyzer on a sample of domestic flights in the US. They found that the emissions from electronic devices actually used by real people really do have the potential to affect the controls and instruments of the planes.

I'm an electrical engineer who is not given to following the man's rules, but my education and research leads me to refrain from using a cell phone, which can transmit at a Watt or two, on a flying airplane. Likewise, I will ask people I see doing that to shut their phones off.


I recently wondered why airlines continue to demonstrate how seatbelts are used prior to each flight. After all, how many people (Americans especially) haven't flown on an airplane, and further, who haven't used a seatbelt?

But then I realized why they do it on a recent trip to Europe.

As much as I'd like to think that the majority of humans are quite intelligent, I found than I am mistaken.

I couldn't believe the number of people that feel the need to get out of their seats and wander around when the seatbelt sign is on, and turbulence is throwing the coffee out of my cup.

Or the people that can't stay seated "until the plane comes to a complete stop and the captain has turned off the seatbelt sign"...

(We were brought to a halt on the ramp 5 times, causing an additional 5 minute delay because people thought we had arrived.)

I then rationalized that the airlines give you these instructions every time for litigation purposes. When Billy gets thrown to the ceiling in hard turbulence while seatbelt sign was on, he'll have a tough time blaming the airline.

As for the radios, DrXenon is correct (I'm an aerospace engineer who's studied similar research). It's interesting to note, however, that European airlines will not let you use a CD player on the flight (although MP3 players are OK). Additionally, you can use your laptop, but you can't use it to play CD's, and you also can't use a mouse with it. Very strange.



sredni vashtar

Those are really trifles compared to regulations regarding international flights, which is most cases effectively rule out competition.


>Third, there is the fact that the Air Marshals are
>completely obvious if you are looking for them.

This has become a bit of a scandal, as recently reorted on by Brian Ross:

Air Marshal Says He Faced Retaliation for Bringing Up Security Issues

....."We're supposed to be undercover. But basically when everybody knows who you are, you're just the guys on the plane with the gun. Either they're gonna avoid you or overcome you, you're at a severe disadvantage."....


Wouldn't this count as a situation in which "your seat cushion could be used as a flotation device?"


On the reclining seat issue, according to numerous flight attendants I've asked, it's to facilitate exit of the people in the row behind you.

Of course, those same flight attendants would not let me remain reclined when the row behind me was vacant so I am inclined to question this at least a little bit.

Jim Driscoll

Your search of water landings apparently didn't include looking for them on Wikipedia. Tsk :-)

As for electronics, while I find the rules annoying, I'd prefer to keep my RF producing equipment away from miles of unshielded wire (i.e., an antenna) at a time when a mistake of feet can result in a dirt nap. So yeah, turn it off.

D. C.

Re announcements: Repetition, repetition, repetition — humans are not perfect learners, and the more we hear the water-landing announcements, the more likely we'll remember it if the need ever arises. It's the same principle as starting every Boy Scout meeting with a recitation of the Scout Oath and Law, and why military recruits in boot camp are made to recite their General Orders and other useful knowledge ad nauseam.

Re cell phones, etc.: No one seems to have mentioned that safety is frequently offered as a purported justification for entry barriers to competition. It wouldn't be a total shock if some of that were at work with the airlines. CDs, DVDs, and iPods are competition for the airlines' headset rentals. Cell phones are competition for the seat-back phones. Passengers' use of laptop WiFi would be competition for a future charge-per-minute airborne Internet offering. Once you let passengers start using the products and services to which they already have access, you have a really hard time later making them use only your offering. So it wouldn't be totally irrational for the airlines to try to preserve as many actual and potential future monopolies as possible.



Technically a crash, but nonetheless a plane landing the water next to the 14th Street Bridge in Washington DC:

Supposedly people in traffic on the bridge jumped into the water to help save people. There were 4 survivors. (My cousin was on this flight.)

Also - Mythbusters did a test of the electronics disturbing aircraft equipment. If I remember correctly, they found that 1 device didn't do a thing - but a whole bunch of them on at the same time caused some instruments to go haywire.


Put your cell phone near your computer's speakers and listen to the clicks that come out of the computer speaker. Then imagine those clicks on the airplane's electronics.

But, Steven wasn't complaining about cell phones. However, if electronics aren't all FCC approved and shielded, they can probably transmit some RF signals around the cabin.

My biggest complaint is all the money and attention thrown at airplane security. In this post-9/11 world, I don't think any plane full of passengers would allow the plane to be hijacked. A pre-9/11 mindset believed that if you just stayed quiet and docile you would survive when the hijackers got what they wanted. A post-9/11 mindset says if you don't fight to the death, you die anyways. A metal butter knife or a nail file won't work in this post-9/11 world. Unfortunately, there are tons of other opportunities for terrorism that don't carry this amount of risk for the evil-doer, so we should focus more of our attention on these venues.

The government needs to get some smart economists to do a cost/risk/benefit analysis and figure out where else in the TSA to move some of the airline security funding so I can get my metal butter knife back in first class.



it seems like many of the rules in place exist devoid of any sense of economic reality concerning costs and benefits.

Are you just complaining or really being serious?

Re water landings: As several people said, just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it's a zero-probability event. The instructions make perfect economic sense. It's like insurance, with a very low premium (listening each time), against an extremely unlikely event with an extremely high cost.

Re electronic devices: There's obviously a potential difference in outcome between one (almost measure zero) person doing something and *everyone* on the plane doing the same thing, that an economist must understand. Also, sure, lots of fire in a crash. But, fire in the wings is different from fire in your lap.