FAA device rules illustrate the folly of a regulated internet

The New York Times‘ Bits blog has a great piece on the FAA’s inconvenient, outdated and unhelpful rules regarding electronic devices on planes:

Dealing with the F.A.A. on this topic is like arguing with a stubborn teenager. The agency has no proof that electronic devices can harm a plane’s avionics, but it still perpetuates such claims, spreading irrational fear among millions of fliers.

The dumb FAA rules illustrate why we shouldn’t let the government regulate the internet: Government regulations are nearly always outdated and too cautious.

The FAA rules are dumb and continue to be dumb because FAA rule makers have neither the expertise nor the incentive to accurately weigh costs and benefits.

Its employees can’t keep up with the latest communications and aviation technology like employees at device manufacturers, telecomm companies and airlines must. That means rules are doomed to be ill-informed.

Also, incentives for the FAA strongly favor caution. Fully researching the issue or taking risks by allowing some airlines to test in-flight device usage offers little benefit to FAA staff. Yet allowing in-flight devices and seeing passenger safety threatened as a result could threaten funding, power, and end several promising bureaucratic careers. Simply put, the FAA device rules illustrates how regulations are made based on what’s best for regulators, not what’s best for industries or consumers.

This is true of nearly all regulation. Regulators cannot be (and have little incentive to be) as well-informed as the people working in regulated industries. So it follows that the fastest-changing industries are most hamstrung by overly cautious and outdated regulation.

For this reason, whether it’s cybersecurity or net neutrality, it’s easy to see why well-intentioned, seemingly helpful attempts to use government to regulate the internet are doomed to be perpetually ill-informed, outdated and tending toward caution to the detriment of progress and innovation.

Photo by epSos.de.


  1. MrE

    ” Regulators cannot be (and have little incentive to be) as well-informed as the people working in regulated industries.”
    …or, maybe the regulators are underfunded, and do not have the time/resources to do proper research. or maybe something else is going on.
    “there are some bad regulations”–>”all regulations are bad.”
    This does not follow.
    if you’re going to give analysis, please actually think instead of repeating platitudes and political propaganda.

  2. Kontiki_99

    Lotta talk from someone that’s not an instrument rated pilot. Let me know when you have some skin in the game. And yes, there has been research, I watched and even helped conduct some of the testing.

    • NoahFect

      A pilot is no more qualified to make these judgement calls than a bartender is. Engineering reports are all that count. Where are those reports?

  3. Cathy Reisenwitz

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting MrE and Kontiki!

    MrE, I never said all regulations were good or bad. Just that they have some inherent deficiencies compared to private decision making. I don’t think that listing those deficiencies is thoughtless or platitudinous. Also, if you don’t want political propaganda (not even sure what you mean by that) then you probably shouldn’t read political blogs :P.

    Kontiki, I’d love to know more from someone with “skin in the game” and insider knowledge. What did you think about the NYT piece? Do you have links to any of the studies?

  4. SteakAndRoses

    Well…as a frequent flyer and technical person by trade, I really don’t have a problem with the FAA playing it “too safe” when it comes to such devices. You see, a big testing regimen for all currently available (and formerly available) in-flight devices would be an ongoing, expensive endeavour. Handheld and wireless technology changes over time, as does avionics technology, so the testing would be continuous. Without rigorous testing, I daresay the passengers of the particular aircraft that suffered an avionics malfunction due to some new handheld technology would gladly trade their in-flight internet for a clean pair of drawers. I’m personally very much against any sort of regulated internet, but the FAA analogy maybe isn’t the best example to put forth. Just my $.02

    • Cathy Reisenwitz

      What up Steak! Thanks so much for your insightful and pleasant comment. I definitely see where you’re coming from. I think a lot of people want safety. The thing is, airlines want safety too. Their continued existence depends on it. So they have every incentive to test ways to make flights much more pleasant and productive while maintaining safety standards. So I think it could be done without regulation. But perhaps no airline would put up the money even if it were legal. Or perhaps one would, and the testing would come back that its fine, and the plane would crash anyway. I, personally, would like to rely on the market for stuff like this because I have a higher risk tolerance than the FAA on this matter. But not everyone does. And for them, it would seem like a no-frills but very safe airline would always be available. Or, they could drive. Because that’s safe 🙂

    • NoahFect

      *Well…as a frequent flyer and technical person by trade, I really don’t have a problem with the FAA playing it “too safe” when it comes to such devices.*

      Yes, you do, because superstition is not safety.

  5. Joe Haynie

    If I’m not mistaken, many Apple devices don’t even turn off. They must be magically exempt from interfering with avionics… 🙂

    • Tom H.

      Your mistaken. I can’t think of a single Apple product that can’t be turned off and I own and use a fairly wide variety of them.

        • GeoffDepew

          classic: hold down the play/pause button for three seconds.

          touch: same as the iphone, hold down the lock button at the top until the ‘slide to power off’ appears. Slide, and wait.

          Both of these are documented in the instructions that came with the device.

  6. TREZA

    A few remarks :

    – Airlines don’t have the competence to decide what is safe or what is not safe in an aircraft, it is the responsability of the legal authorities that deliver licences to
    aircraft manufacturers and equipment providers. (And airlines don’t _want_ to be responsible)
    The current rule is that everything onboard must pass qualification tests in order to
    be accepted (even the toaster!). Allowing any random electronic device is quite a departure from the ‘normal’ procedure.

    – On this subject, all sorts of testings have been performed with the collaboration of aircraft manufaturers. This takes time and doing test flights isn’t cheap. You must also realise that aircraft are used for at least 20years and takes many years to design. Planes flying now have been developed at a time when this issue didn’t exist and new elecromagnetic compatibility issues are coming as airplanes are shifting from aluminium to composite (carbon fiber) construction. The idea that the FAA has “incentives” for the status quo is silly. The FAA, the NASA, Boeing, Airbus and many others have worked on this subject but taking 10 years to decide is not really a long time, creating a new aircaft takes as long (;-)

    – The FAA is collaborating with other agencies like the JAA (Europe), JAXA (Japan), CAA (China), OACI (UN) and try to have common positions. Aircrafts are not built only for the US market.

    – Goverment agencies should be reasonably neutral and avoid conflicts of interests with the industry, for aircrafts, for drugs, and for all sorts of technologies. They also use experts both in-house and external. The airlines cannot control (and it would cost an insane amount of money for each airline to perform its own set of tests) and equipment manufacturers are far from neutral and can’t be trusted (believe me, never trust them blindly!).

    – There is no relation between FAA rules and Internet regulation. Period.

    [Sorry, I’m not a native English writer, words are certainly not all appropriate. I’m working for an aircaft manufacturer.]

    • Cathy Reisenwitz

      Thanks so much for commenting Treza. It doesn’t make sense that the people who built the airplane and put it in the air simply cannot be trusted to determine whether electronic devices can be safely used. You may not, for whatever reason, want to trust them, and prefer your safety be protected by a government agency. That’s fine, but there’s a tradeoff there, in that that government agency’s regulations will be behind the airline decisions in the recency of its information and will be more cautious than the airlines would be. Again, you may prefer this. But to say airlines must or can not be trusted is mistaken. It’s a preference.

      • Mxx

        Airlines will do anything in their power to maximize their profits. If left alone, they will do absolutely bare minimum to deliver passengers to their destinations to avoid lawsuits. If they could, they would shove passengers like sardines in a tin can. If they could, they would sell their own “approved” cell phones that would be allowed to used on planes.

        Cathy, you are as biased against FAA as you are biased toward airlines and telco/cableco carriers.

  7. Mxx

    I strongly disagree with your analogy of FAA with FCC’s internet regulation.

    However, I do agree that the current “rules” should be re-evaluated.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if cellphone/other electronic devices were perfectly safe to use at any point during a flight.
    I sure as hell hope plane’s electronics are shielded enough to safely operate even when somebody refuses(or forgets) to turn off their cell phone. I would not want safety to be in the hands of passengers’ voluntary compliance.

    Additionally, planes had to cope with external radio interference for years. I’m sure it’s a lot more significant from cities, towns, countries that are around airports. Yet we don’t see swat teams busting down people’s doors to demand they turn off their microwave ovens or FM radios.

  8. NoBody

    It would be interesting to know the author’s opinion on other regulatory agencies such as EPA and the like. We have the same (imho) ill-educated, incompetent, dinosaur-ic type(s) in charge of regulating how we use our land, teach our children, et al. After all, you can’t simply parcel out one section of the government as being fairly ineffective without implicating the whole..

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