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The Madness of Air Travel Regulation
If you’ve ever flown in a plane, you know the drill.
Listen for the upteenth time to the standard list of rules.
Watch a flight attendant show you how to buckle a seatbelt.
Stow your baggage completely under the seat in front of you.
Keep your seat upright, your tray table up, and your large electronics packed until the plane reaches cruising altitude.
Put your seat upright, your tray table up, and your large electronics away when the plane starts its descent.
And now, of course, keep your mask on at all times, except briefly for eating and drinking.
What’s the point of all these rules? If you Google, you’ll find some dogmatic condescending defenses of the status quo. But I can’t find a single piece that even mentions, much less deploys, cost-benefit analysis.* Instead, the defenders of the status quo just say that these are all “safety measures.” Hypothetical scenarios like, “What if you can’t escape from a burning plane because tray tables block your way?” are the closest thing they have to an argument. Followed by, “Better safe than sorry.”
Can the reasoning really be so insipid? Verily. Remember a few years back, when you couldn’t even use your small electronics during takeoff and landing? When that was the law of the land, here’s how one defender of the status quo justified it:
There was a lot of discussion about whether or not phones would interfere with the navigation equipment. No one has been able to prove that they do and nobody has been able to prove that they don't. Again at the moment, they are erring on the side of safety.
The truth is, the FAA doesn’t know for sure that cellular signals interfere with flight equipment. Theoretically, they could. That was enough for the ban, the FAA figured.
What’s the alternative to “erring on the side of safety”?
One is technocratic: Carefully measure safety benefits and convenience costs, and impose regulations if and only if the safety benefits exceed the convenience costs.
This would almost certainly end almost all of the regulations passengers endure. Why? Because air travel is so incredibly safe that even large percentage safety gains have little value. As the National Safety Council puts it:
Commercial scheduled air travel is among the safest modes of transportation; the 2020 lifetime odds of dying as an aircraft passenger in the United States were too small to calculate.
The other alternative to the status quo is consumer-driven: Let each airline set their own safety rules - and let the chips fall where they may. If consumers’ fear of flying on airplanes that land with trays down exceeds the the convenience of unlimited tray access, airlines will make you raise trays. Otherwise, tray’s the limit.
Due to public innumeracy, I’m not entirely confident that “letting the market decide” would torch the status quo. Still, people love convenience, and actions do speak louder than words. So I’d still predict that most of the rules would go away in a few years.
Why, though, does the status quo endure? Partly, it’s the same logic as the FDA: regulators personally suffer far more for underregulation than overregulation. No regulator will get a big promotion for making flying more convenient. But if deregulation causes a single media scandal, top regulators will face public humiliation and potential career devastation.
The deeper reason the inane status quo endures, though, is the dreadful fact that in politics, words speak louder than actions. Actions say that human beings love convenience. But rhetorically, convenience counts for almost nothing.
Upshot: When you hand power over to government, you don’t get numerate technocracy; you get the innumerate demagoguery that we’ve long endured. When you “let the market decide,” businesses can get rich by catering to innumerate consumers; see the organic food industry. But businesses can simultaneously get rich by catering to everyone else, too. Letting the market set airline travel standards wouldn’t be perfect, but it would put to shame the innumerate demagoguery we’ve long endured. Convenience now!
*I was however able to find one empirical cost-benefit analysis of airport security. Central result: “Fatality risks from terrorist attacks to airports are extremely low, and 100–1000 times less than acceptable risks.”