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The Unfriendly Skies

Why do we have to return our seats to their upright and locked position?

Oct 4, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 03 • By WILLY STERN
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Say you’re at a bar in downtown Chicago, throw down six shots of Jack Daniel’s, and head out to O’Hare Airport to catch a flight. You’re traveling with your adorable 6-month-old twins. Drunk as a skunk, you hop on the “L”, ride the subway at speeds of up to 55 mph, banking around the sharp curves in the Loop, standing up with a baby in each arm. Legal? 

The Unfriendly Skies

You bet, just so long as you don’t bother your fellow passengers. And so says a spokesman for the Chicago Transit Authority.

But once you board that American Airlines flight, it’s against the law to sit in your first-class seat whilst the plane taxis at 4 mph if your seat is inclined even a quarter-inch.

By the same token, you’d be violating no laws if you were to ride, standing on one leg, your kid perched on your shoulders, on an MTA bus charging down Fifth Avenue. And, as any small-government aficionado will tell you, that’s just fine. We take risks each and every time we step out of our homes and don’t need the government to decide for us which risks are acceptable.

So why, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, must our seats be in their original and upright position as we begin our descent, a full 20 minutes before we land?

What are the actual risks to unclipping our seat belts seconds before the plane has come to a full and complete stop?

Why can’t we use our cell phones while taxiing at LAX, but can do so at Heathrow?

FAA regulation 121.311 says your seat has to be in its full and upright position during takeoffs and landings. It’s the reason the pesky flight attendant leans over to press that little button, waking you up 20 minutes before landing. (The regulation contains 1,382 words—more than twice as many as the Bill of Rights.) The FAA says this is in case of the need for a quick exit if the plane crashes. The theory is that an extra inch or two just might make the difference in squeezing out of your seat. The rule is also enforced in first class where—even with the seats reclined—there is often far more space to get out than in the best of conditions in the cheap seats in the main cabin.

Peter Friedman, an airline safety consultant, says it’s all about satisfying rules. The airlines, explains Friedman, “are required to show that they can get all their passengers out of a plane in 90 seconds. They run these tests not with real, panicked passengers but by loading the plane with airline employees.” The tests are as meaningless as the rules.

And, of course, it’s worth getting woken up from our naps to buckle our belts and adjust our seats since airplanes crash so often, right? National Transportation Safety Board data for the last full five years indicate some 95 million commercial aircraft hours flown .  .  . and nine major accidents! We should credit the FAA with an exceptional safety record. You’ve got a better chance of being struck by lightning than of crashing in a jet. In fact, you’ve got a better chance of being struck twice by lightning than of going down with one of the big commercial operators.

But rest assured, Big Brother FAA is always looking out for you. Take the seat belt law, first written in 1941 and updated 30 years later. According to an agency spokesman, “The FAA believes the logic behind restraining a passenger in the event of impact is self-evident.” Really? It’s not to public transport officials in dozens of cities around the country whose vehicles lack seat belts.

How about those devil-may-care risk-takers (every society has them, after all) who dare to ride public buses and trains? “That’s why we have straps and poles,” says a New York City MTA spokesman, who clearly isn’t losing sleep over the fact his subways and buses lack seat belts. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Patrick Hogan, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport spokesman, says 32 million passengers travel through his airport each year, and he does “not remember” any accidents on the concourse tram, which moves at 30 mph and has no seatbelts. 

The fine for failing to comply with the FAA’s seat belt dictum: $1,100. 

The same fine is assessed for placing an item at your feet in the bulkhead row. The ever-vigilant FAA is concerned that you won’t be able to step over your own purse in the event of a quick evacuation—although the FAA is not aware of any injuries caused by an item left on the cabin floor.

Then there’s the matter of the cell phone ban on commercial flights. This time, it’s the Federal Communications Commission’s silly rule. An FCC consumer advisory explains that the “ban was put in place because of potential interference to wireless networks on the ground.” The FCC might want to check with colleagues in Europe, where cell phone usage has been allowed in planes for more than two years now without any apparent problems. And don’t forget the corporate executives who happily—and legally—use their cell phones and computers on private jets every day. 

What’s at work here is society’s unhealthy fear of risk—a problem that is compounded by scaremongering in the press and the prevalence of lawsuits over the most minor injuries and actions—and a reluctance to assume personal responsibility in the face of the ubiquitous Nanny State. But there’s also simple inertia. 

“In 21 years of flying, I never once heard a flight attendant complain about enforcing these rules,” says Candace Kolander, now coordinator of air safety for the Association of Flight Attendants. “It’s not an annoyance for us. You hear the bongs and you go through the ritual. It’s ingrained.” Indeed, it is ingrained, and that’s part of the problem. Luke Froeb of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management explains that institutions like the FAA fall victim to what behavioral economists call a “status quo” bias, where rules—no matter how ridiculous—are almost impossible to change once in place. (Froeb might be interested to learn that the ban on using personal electronic devices on airlines has been around since 1961 when one wonders what personal electronic devices people were carrying onto planes.)

Did ridiculous rules play a part in the recent meltdown by a fed-up flight attendant? It’s possible. Steven Slater was the JetBlue employee who apparently went on a profane tirade over his plane’s intercom, swiped a cold beer, cracked open the aircraft door, and slid down the emergency chute. Moments earlier, according to media reports, passengers had to be reminded to sit back down in their seats after—horror of horrors!—some scallywags tried to grab their bags before the plane had reached the gate.

Mike Munger, a political science professor at Duke University, says the FAA’s silly rules are, in fact, a form of what psychologists and zoologists refer to as “costly signals.” What’s the term mean? Costly signal theory explains actions that might seem crazy, but have a purpose. For instance, a gazelle espies a lion across the veldt and, instead of hiding, expends much energy by leaping high into the air, calling attention to herself. At the same time, she’s telling the lion, “Hey, I’m no simple catch so look elsewhere for your dinner.” Similarly, the FAA wastes a lot of energy and resources with its pages and pages of inane rules, but is somehow trying to convey the message that planes are safe. Most of us would rather skip the message and finish our naps in full recline.

Willy Stern last wrote for The Weekly Standard about Afghanistan.

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