The End of the “No Electronics Below 10,000 Feet” Rule is Going Away is a Bigger Deal Than You Think

We’ll Soon Be Able to Use Personal Electronic Devices During Taxi, Takeoff, nd Landing

Today’s big news was that the ban on using personal electronics onboard aircraft that are below 10,000 feet would be lifted.

JetBlue hopes to be certified to lift the ban on its flights tomorrow.

This change applies to both domestic and international flights on US airlines. Each airline has to submit a plan for how it will allow such use safely, and will be able to implement its own rules within FAA guidelines.

But very soon we’ll be able to use electronics below 10,000 feet. We won’t be able to use broadcast signals, any such devices will need to be in ‘airplane mode’. And cell phone use will remain banned, since that’s an FCC rule and isn’t address here, because cell providers lobby against it (bouncing cell towers is a challenge for them), and because the public thinks that it’s the worst idea ever though they don’t really rebel against it on Amtrak and Airfones didn’t cause the downfall of the world either.

The Old Rule Was Pretty Silly

When talking about the rule that electronics had to be turned off below 10,000 feet, most people thought it was pretty silly — almost everyone has mistakenly either left their phone on in their bag, or had some electronics turn on during the flight which they only realized later. And no Really. Bad. Things. happened.

Nor did problems arise when pilots used tablets in the cockpit, either.

The notion that $100 million equipment could be brought down by an iPod, or by 100 iPods, was the subject of ridicule.

This Isn’t Trivial or Frivolous

At the same time it seems to most people like a minor inconvenience. If I complain about it, I’d be chided for focusing on one of the ultimate “first world problems,” the inability to use my computer while flying through the sky.

I mean, how important is it really?

Henry Harteveldt, whom I much respect, has said that this is about keeping the passenger entertained.

I wouldn’t be nearly so dismissive.

First, because entertainment shouldn’t actually be dismissed. Entertainment is, in some sense, the point. Having increased happiness, making the most of each moment, seems like it’s the goal of the human condition, at least once we’ve satisfied basic survival needs (and most people in an airplane seat have done so).

But second because it’s also a big deal for the economy. It’s not just your ten minutes. It’s everyone’s.

  • There are 800 million passengers a year on US flights.
  • If 1 in 6 passengers does something productive with their time, that’s over 44 million hours of productivity per year.
  • Over a decade ago I had done some market research and found that the average airline passenger made over $90,000 per year. So their time generates an average of $45 per hour.
  • That’s two billion dollars per year.

I don’t know if these assumptions are reasonable. Certainly average income is higher now than a decade ago (though not that much!) and people working would seem likely to skew towards higher salaries. Perhaps one in six people working is high, but it doesn’t actually matter — perhaps it ‘only’ generating a billion dollars a year in activity.

If a regulation didn’t promote safety and cost the economy a billion dollars a year, there would be a strong presumption against it. And it’s already cost that billion each and every year it’s been in place.

So this should be celebrated, as a triumph for making the most of our moments and as a positive economic move.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Airphones weren’t a big deal bc they were rarely used bc they were ridiculously expensive. Calls were short.

    Amtrak seats are spaced further apart then planes and it’s easier to move if you are sitting next to a loud mouth

    Maybe not a big deal in first class, but for those of us flying coach I don’t want to be trapped next to a chatterbox with unlimited minutes for a four hour flight

  2. @Jay – while Amtrak regional train seats really aren’t spaced further apart than coach airline seats, you actually point to a potential solution — really two. Calls from planes could be possible but more expensive to discourage use or to be available only for really important things, and spacing is a solution too (Amtrak has quiet cars…)

  3. Jay, the news story I read said that texts as well as voice calls were banned. My texting does not harm you or anybody else. Calls should indeed be banned but texting should be allowed. People text on subway and bus and other public transport all the time, it’s a huge improvement over the bad old days when people used to talk and you couldn’t help but overhear their private business. I don’t see the sense of forbidding texting on planes. The handwavers are apparently saying “because cell phone towers” which makes no real sense to me.

  4. One thing I do wonder about is if they are gonna let folks have a laptop in one’s lap during take off and landing. It seems like a bad idea for the same reason you aren’t supposed to put them in the seat pocket: if a plane hits something (or the landing gear collapses, etc) and the speed quickly drops by 100mph or more, that laptop becomes a 5 pound missile flying towards someones head.

  5. If phone usage isn’t a big deal on Amtrak, why do they offer a “quiet cars” on corridor trains?

  6. Same idea as Vincent…how much of a difference is this really going to make? EVERYTHING has to be stowed for “taxi, takeoff, and landing”…not just electronics. How much of going up to or down from 10,000 AGL is really not considered part of “takeoff” or “landing” respectively?

    BTW for fun I just looked up standard climb rate of 757 below 10k ft AGL…about 2-3000 ft/min altitude. So we’re taking 3 to 5 minutes.

    I’m not saying getting rid of this particular rule was bad. It isn’t. There are just other rules that might make this not such a big deal.

  7. I also agree with Vincent. It is not about electornics interfering with the equipment. There is a SAFETY issue when the plane crashes, and all the cell phones turning into missiles. Laptops turning into missiles. Ipads turning into missiles. Books turn into missiles.

  8. Gary, you’re awesome but the math on the average income of flyers is ridiculous. I’d really love to see some of that data.

    But honestly. They will NEVER NEVER NEVER be able to enforce anything like “put your phones into airplane mode” and be sure the radio is off. while they MAY be able to police people from holding the phone up to their heads while actually talking into it, everyone with enough battery will be trying to text, get mail, download anything they can.

    If the FAA really thinks we have to keep phones in airplane mode, meaning not have an active RADIO trying to reach a cell tower etc., then they’ve just opened up the flood gates for no reason and we’ll never get them closed again.

  9. Laptops will have to be stowed but not tablets or phones.

    Check the next time you fly how long it is prior to landing that you are asked to turn off your electronic devices.

  10. >> “When talking about the rule that electronics had to be turned off below 10,000 feet, most people thought it was pretty silly — almost everyone has mistakenly either left their phone on in their bag, or had some electronics turn on during the flight which they only realized later. And no Really. Bad. Things. happened.”

    This is a logic fallacy. Maybe you’ve never worked with risk mitigation. You may have come to the right conclusion but for the wrong reason.

  11. This is actually a Very Big Deal for parents of young kids who fly. You try explaining to your 2 year old why you have to shut off “Cars” and we’re not even getting off the plane yet.

    Being able to keep electronics on isn’t about 3 or 5 or 20 minutes, it’s about the continuity. I’m rejoicing.

    Here’s my post about it.

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