Accept the Inevitable or Become Irrelevant... in the Air

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The FAA has finally relented, and changed its half-century-old rule banning electronic devices below 10,000 feet. Technically, pacemakers, watches and, well, the in-flight navigation system should have been banned, too, but of course they weren't. For that matter, neither were the seat-back entertainment systems. I was on a United flight last night, and when the system restarted, it was clearly a Linux computer!

The problem here wasn't really safety, and everyone knew it. I fly ~150k miles per year, and I have seen, on every single flight, many people leave their phones on in airplane mode, and some with an active cellular connection. Let me emphasize that: over the past 3 years, over around 200 flights, I have never been on a flight without devices on. And yet, every single one landed safely.

The real reasons why the FAA finally did rescind the rule are political: it was afraid of losing power and face.

  1. Power: Almost a year ago, Sen. Claire McCaskill threatened legislation overriding the FAA ban. While it dragged its feet for nearly a year when everyone knew the foregone conclusion, if it took much longer, the FAA would be forced, by law, to drop the ban. While the result would be the same - devices allowed - the process would mean loss of power from the FAA. For an agency appointee, that loss of power is intolerable.
  2. Face: I am not the only one who noticed more and more passengers ignoring the ban. When the regulated ignore regulations, the regulators become a laughingstock. The agency really had no choice but to remove the rule because, well, everyone was ignoring it.

To show how far it goes, on most flights I see flight attendants, the very ones charged with enforcing the ban, reading email during taxi, and playing games during takeoff and landing.

At a certain point, you need to accept the inevitable or become irrelevant.