Why is the FAA usually so slow to change airline safety rules?

October 31, 2013

There are lots of airplane regulations that don't make much sense at first glance. Why do passengers need a demonstration of how to use seat belts? Do travelers really need to keep their seats upright during take-off? Or reminders not to smoke in the bathroom?


Many of these rules were crafted decades ago by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — and the agency rarely loosens them.

So it was a big deal when, on Thursday, the FAA finally announced that it would allow passengers to use electronics, read e-books, and keep their laptops on during take-off and landing. (Cellphones would still need to stay in airplane mode during the flight, and laptops would still have to be stowed away during take-off and landing.)

It was one of the rare times the FAA has relaxed its safety rules to make things easier for fliers. Limits on the use of electronics date back to the 1950s, when studies first discovered that portable FM radios could cause interference with navigation systems — and they've only gradually changed over time to permit use above 10,000 feet.

"The FAA tends to be very slow in changing regulations, so this is a big shift," says Joshua Schank, director of the Eno Center for Transportation.

So why did it take so long?

Airline experts have long pointed out that the FAA tends to be extremely risk-averse when it comes to altering its rules. That's not unusual for safety-oriented government agencies. As tech reporter Steve Wildman has pointed out, many agencies have a "strong belief" that "inaction is the safest course for bureaucrats who live in constant fear of political fallout if a decision goes bad."

That's often a very good thing. Commercial aviation in the United States has an enviable safety record — crashes are remarkably rare. The FAA's obsessiveness over safety matters deserves a lot of credit for that.

But that cautious approach can have downsides, too. In July, the Department of Transportation's inspector general told Congress that the FAA was moving too slowly to modernize air-traffic control systems. "FAA’s highly operational, tactical, and safety-oriented culture can lead to a risk-averse outlook that is slow to embrace change," he noted.

So why did the electronics rule finally get revisited? One reason is that the ban on using Kindles and iPads during take-off and landing looked absurd on its face. Travelers were already leaving these devices on in their luggage without causing crashes. And the FAA was allowing the airlines themselves to use electronic tablets during flights. If the pilots and flight crews could use iPads during take-off, why couldn't passengers?

"Everyone could see that the rule made no sense," says Schank. "It was patently obvious to the average person."

It also helped that a growing number of passengers were getting visibly frustrated with the rule — especially as smartphones, tablets, and e-readers became more pervasive. Tech entrepreneurs were complaining to newspapers about getting scolded for sneaking a peek at their e-mail. Alec Baldwin famously got tossed off a plane after playing Words with Friends on his phone (okay, he did a lot more than that, but it started with illicit phone use).

There was plenty of political pressure on the FAA, too. Last December, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) wrote a letter to the agency exhorting them to reconsider the rule. And she made it clear that the agency couldn't move at its usual slow pace: "I am prepared to pursue legislative solutions should progress be made too slowly," she warned.

It's worth noting that even after the FAA agreed to reconsider the rule, convene an advisory panel of experts, and run various technical analyses to show that electronics could be used safely, the change still took a long time to finalize. The agency had to engage in months of "stepped-up testing to identify individual aircraft models most vulnerable to potential electromagnetic interference from personal electronics in the cabin." The FAA wanted to make absolutely sure they hadn't overlooked even the smallest risk.*

Don't expect similar changes to happen frequently, however — even if there are other rules that may appear equally strange. For instance, Schank notes, it's not entirely obvious why passengers need to pull their seat upright during take-off and landing. Yes, if there's an emergency, people may need to get out into the aisle. But it's unlikely those few inches would make a huge difference anyway — especially in a crash.

But there's at least some logic to that rule. And, much like those videos explaining how to use seat belts, the rule isn't so big an inconvenience as to spark a mass outcry. So most rules will stay put, even if they might seem like overkill.

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* Note: Over the years, some pilots have reported instances where they suspect electronic devices caused equipment to malfunction, but much of this tends to be anecdotal. Hard evidence on this question is difficult to come by.

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