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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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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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