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.


I've always wondered about the crash landing positions that airlines display in their safety cards. First of all, they show two totally different positions: one for larger people (and, in some safety cards, pregnant women) and one for shorter people. How do we know which one we're supposed to use? Is there some sort of height/weight threshold that I should be aware of?

Second, from the drawings, it looks like in the event of a crash, people in the proper crash positions for shorter people are perfectly situated to have their heads rammed into the seats in front of them. I assume that the FAA has done the necessary testing on this position, but it looks to me like it's substantially more likely to kill you than the position for the larger people.

Has this been bothering anyone else?


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.

Not being hijacked and passengers not letting a plane be hijacked are two completely separate concepts. Increased/improved security focuses on a plane not being hijacked. Passengers not letting a plane be hijacked is best represented by Flight 93.

Remember, though, that all those on board Flight 93 died. Thus, as someone who would prefer to remain alive, I'm all for increased/improved security. Though I would hope I'd be the kind of person to fight to the death in that sort of situation, I'd certainly prefer to not have to make that choice at all.

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.

I used to put my cell phone right below my computer monitor and every time, right before someone called my monitor would freak out almost like a mini-degauss. It was cool in the sense that I knew when my phone would ring before it rang, but I quickly decided the harm it might be doing my monitor was worth moving my cell phone to a new location. I also stopped carrying my phone in my pants pocket...



This is the typical example of the authority-in-uniform syndrome. Any time you give people a uniform to wear when their job is to serve customers who are not wearing uniforms, they automaticallly assume that their real role is to assert their authority to impose meaningless petty rules on those they are supposed too be serving.

It's an area begging for further research and if anyone wants to offer me a grant of $100k a year, unlimited first class travel, and a guarantee of a PhD from a prestigious educational institution after 3 years of work I am prepared to undertake such research. I will even provide my own uniform.


While I have all the respect in the world for the passengers of Flight 93, their plane was hijacked in a pre-9/11 world. Reinforced cockpit doors alone has a huge impact on preventing terrorists from taking over the controls of the plane. A butter knife or box cutter isn't going to require the entire plane to selflessly fight to the death to save people on the ground.

Extending my original point to the Flight 93 situation: with only minutes notice, the passengers of Flight 93, once they realized there was potential they (and others) would be killed, took action. Since 9/11, any plane in the world that is threatened is no longer treated by authorities, and especially passengers, as simply a hostage situation. This changes the entire psychology of the event.

In my opinion, (with no hard facts or research backing this up,) I think airline hijackings are a thing of the past. Bombs, possible. Hostage situations, doubtful. Neither the passengers or the authorities will allow it.

Improving security is great. I'm all for it. But, we do not have an unlimited budget. The manpower required to scan backpacks for nail files, metal butter knives, and box cutters requires huge commitments, and there is much less chance of taking over an airplane with a nail file than there was 10 years ago. However, there is still very little scrutiny placed on the cargo compartment under the plane. I really wonder if airplane security is as effective as it could be given the current budget. I think the current arrangement is set up more for psychological reasons, to give the passengers more comfort that they are safe, since they can see the difference.

Also, because of all the airline security, you are much more safe on an airplane than you are on a subway or a train. Should this continue to be the case? Without a viable hijacking dimension, because of the lessons every person on this planet learned on 9/11, the plane is no longer a weapon, and the comparisons between planes, trains, and subways have become much more similar. I don't want anybody running around killing people with a box cutter in any situation. So, why focus so much security dollars solely on planes?



Amusingly, some European companies still provide metal knives. I've been carrying a Luxair metal knife in my bag for years and have never been bothered at a security check.


Actually, funny you should mention electronic devices. They shouldn't have an effect, but it has been shown (i.e. a recent episode of Mythbusters) that they can. An Ipod is probably insignificant, but certain cell phones can have huge effects on sensitive equipment. Granted, most of this equipment is shielded and protected, but it's unrealistic to expect this shielding to be flawless on commmercial planes that are used frequently. Ultimately, it's just safer to keep cell phones and wireless technology off. Of course, there's also the fact that using a cell phone from the air creates billing and service problems for the companies. Finally, just consider how closely packed coach sections are, and imagine if a large number of people used their cell phones during the flight. I'm sure that these issues unrelated to safety have something to do with it too, but there is definitely legitimacy to the safety argument.

Even though the situation isn't likely, a large number of people would be harmed as well as the reputation of air travel if an incident due to a cell phone occurred, so I consider it fair to regulate this.


Zach Everson

My girlfriend and I flew from Boston to DC last night and I went off on a similar rant. I'm in favor of not using cell phones while flying--I enjoy the quiet--but telling passengers that they interfere with the plane is an outright lie (the Economist has reported about this fib several times).


I travel quite a bit, and what interests me quite a bit is the differences between security in different airports, and different airlines.

We flew from Belfast International Airport to Newark in March. In BFS, they didn't even have metal knives in the food service areas in the main airport body (pre-security). On the other hand, flying from Tokyo to Amsterdam with KLM, they have metal knives on the flight.

I, for one, am glad they don't allow cellphones on the plain. It would be a torture flying long-distance beside someone who lived on their phone.


I take it as a professional analysis to airplane things. Surely its rational from an economics view. However, experts on electronics should be invovled to make things more rational. This is a complex time and each area has got lots of experts. Without professional ideas we could not achieve the right goal. Better to get several experts around one table and start a brainstorm. And this is called teamwork.

And it seems not necessary since this article is just an economist complained during a late night as a lifestyle. The more import sense it makes is to drive usual people to think more about their surroundings.

Paul Turnbull

I find it interesting that none of the people contesting the use of cell phones on planes have any professional knowledge on the subject. The aerospace and electrical engineers who have posted have supported the FCC position that the phones can cause interference.

Economically it's also a no-brainer for the airlines. Crashes are enormously expensive. Inconveniencing your passengers in a way that is unlikely to drive them to competing modes of transport costs very little. (Anecdotely, I know many who've complained about the ban on electronics during takeoff and landing but no one who has decided to drive instead).

Personally, since my knowledge of electronics doesn't extend much past hardware, I'll defer to the experts and leave my iPod off during take off and landing.


Another nonsense rule: open the window shade for landing/takoff. Anyone have any idea the purpose behind that rule?


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.

I'd LIKE to say that's true, but I have doubts. Fighting back is such a completely alien concept to many people - how often have we heard "never resist a mugger"? - that I fear many people won't resist even when it's a life-and-death situation. And let's not forget that the typical airline passenger's fighting skills are not quite on a par with Royce Gracie's or Chuck Lidell's :)
Passenger resistance might be more likely on some flights than on others. I could see, for example, that people would be more prone to fighting back on a flight to Orlando or Las Vegas that's filled with families on vacation, as opposed to a weekday flight filled with businessmen.
Oh, one more thing. Michael Moore was roundly criticized for saying not long after 9/11 that the hijackings would have failed if most of the passengers on the flights had been black men. I don't often agree with Moore, but this is one time I do. Incidentially, I've heard that many people in minority communities express similar sentiment.

Another nonsense rule: open the window shade for landing/takoff. Anyone have any idea the purpose behind that rule?

So fire or wreckage outside the aircraft will be visible in case of accident.



Virtually all of the subjects brought up in this blog have been answered and analyzed numerous times in my long-running ASK THE PILOT column at Additionally, they are covered in my book of the same name, which was published in 2004 by Riverhead.

For starters, there have been numerous occasions when passengers made use of their flotation devices following crash-landings (or wayward takeoffs) into water. Meanwhile, iPods must be switched off for takeoff and landing not because of potential interference, but because they prevent you from hearing instructions in the event of an emergency. It's all about orientation and situational awareness. The requirements for cabin lights and window shades follow similar logic. It's a bit of a stretch, yeah, but that's what the thinking is.

Below are some specific columns of mine that deal with the topics people seem to be curious about. (Access to Salon is free if you watch a very short advertisement.) Additionally, information and links are available through my home page,

Water landings revisited:

Cell phones:

The security-industrial complex:

Terrorism, Tweezers, and Terminal Madness: an essay on security:

Cabin lights, window shades:

The security briefing babble:

Best from Boston,
Patrick Smith



The real economic questions for airlines to deal with these days has to do with frequent flyer miles, which have less and less value. Airlines are running a scam by issuing worthless script and pretending it has value. It is indeed a interest Freakonomic-like issue: How/why do passengers value miles that are so hard to use?


Based on the posts above, the interesting question is: why are ordinary airline passengers willing to pay $1000 (in cash or inconvenience) for $1 (WAG) worth of airline safety, but you can't get the average American city to spend a plug nickel to fix the traffic flow at an unsafe intersection with excessive crashes or even fatalities?


"but you can't get the average American city to spend a plug nickel to fix the traffic flow at an unsafe intersection with excessive crashes or even fatalities?"

That's fear, in other words, most of ordinary people can't be so rational as an economics like Mr. Levit.

Also that may remind of us of the Attention Economic.


"but you can't get the average American city to spend a plug nickel to fix the traffic flow at an unsafe intersection with excessive crashes or even fatalities?"

That's fear, in other words, most of ordinary people can't be so rational as an economics like Mr. Levit.

Also that may remind of us of the Attention Economic. So much that I want get this topic digged out but I can't because of my ability of languages. Maybe someone would like to get that extended, which I would appreciate so much.

Steve Feinberg

One thing that jumps out from Steve's analysis is how these rules and regs echo the airlines' generally inept business practices.

This industry does a lot of things that don't bear up under rational scrutiny. I remember in a meeting with Gordon Bethune not too long after he became CEO, hearing him say the first thing he did was stop unprofitable routes and eliminate unprofitable destinations. "Seemed like a good idea not to do things that lost money" he said, but it was major head-snap for his organization.

As other readers of this post have noted, there might be a rational explanation for any of the airlines' absurd rules. But it's a pretty good bet that any relationship between clear, logical thinking and the airlines' policies are coincidental.


If small electronic devices can interfere with aircraft controls, then we have a different problem.


Another water landing that didn't take place: