The unpleasant and often intrusive procedures that accompany air travel are ostensibly designed to keep people safe, yet they also seem pitched to the lowest common denominator.
For example, most people on airplanes already understand the basic concept of seat belts, and they therefore don’t need a live demonstration to learn how to fasten them. Still, federal regulations demand that flight attendants demonstrate such mundane functions before the flight begins. Whether or not such functions actually increase passenger safety is almost beside the point. Such requirements take on a life of their own, and inertia ensures that they become a permanent part of the process.
That’s why even small changes in the ritual feel like huge victories.
Consider that it no longer is necessary to turn off cell phones or other electronic devices during takeoff and landing (although making phone calls in-flight remains an item of intense debate, and we join the chorus against turning jets into flying phone booths). For years, travelers have been informed that consumer electronics posed a hazard to airplane navigational equipment. This is despite the clear lack of planes grounded due to live cell phones or laptops.
On nearly every flight, it’s likely that some passengers have simply hidden their phones and computers without deactivating them, yet the overwhelming majority of these flights have taken off and landed without incident. Accidents on commercial airliners are exceedingly rare, and, to date, none of them has been attributed to an airline customer leaving his or her phone on.
Yet this unnecessary precaution remained part of the nation’s cultural landscape long after it was clear that it served no discernable purpose. Hollywood actors have made headlines for refusing to turn off their devices, and scores of flights have been delayed or even cancelled because someone failed to comply with this frivolous constraint. Now that the rules have changed, airline employees are coming forward in droves with tales of how much they hated having to enforce this and other nuisance regulations.
So if the both the airlines and their customers despised this rule, and since it clearly accomplished nothing of value, why was it on the books for so long?
Granted, in the grand scheme of things, the use of electronic devices on airplanes isn’t really a big deal, but this situation illustrates a larger principle. It’s far too easy for useless nonsense to become embedded into the system, and it’s far too difficult to pry it out once it’s already there. So while we celebrate this admittedly small victory, we hope that it will prove to be a catalyst for bigger wins against the bureaucracy in the future.