Flying the unfriendly skies

Say you’re at a bar in downtown Chicago, throw down six shots of Jack Daniel’s, and head out to O’Hare Airport to catch a flight.

You’re traveling with your adorable 6-month-old twins. Drunk as a skunk, you hop on the L, ride the subway at speeds of up to 55 mph, banking around the sharp curves in the Loop, standing up with a baby in each arm. Legal?

You bet, just so long as you don’t bother your fellow passengers. And so says a spokesman for the Chicago Transit Authority.

But once you board that American Airlines flight, it’s against the law to sit in your first-class seat whilst the plane taxis at
4 mph if your seat is inclined even a quarter-inch.

By the same token, you’d be violating no laws if you were to ride, standing on one leg, your kid perched on your shoulders, on an MTA bus charging down Fifth Avenue. And, as any small-government aficionado will tell you, that’s just fine. We take risks each and every time we step out of our homes and don’t need the government to decide for us which risks are acceptable.

So why, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, must our seats be in their original and upright position as we begin our descent, a full 20 minutes before we land?

What are the actual risks to unclipping our seat belts seconds before the plane has come to a full and complete stop? Why can’t we use our cell phones while taxiing at LAX, but can do so at Heathrow?

FAA regulation 121.311 says your seat has to be in its full and upright position during takeoffs and landings. It’s the reason the pesky flight attendant leans over to press that little button, waking you up 20 minutes before landing. (The regulation contains 1,382 words — more than twice as many as the Bill of Rights.) The FAA says this is in case of the need for a quick exit if the plane crashes. The theory is that an extra inch or two just might make the difference in squeezing out of your seat. The rule is also enforced in first class, where — even with the seats reclined — there is often far more space to get out than in the best of conditions in the cheap seats in the main cabin.

Peter Friedman, an airline safety consultant, says it’s all about satisfying rules. The airlines, explains Friedman, “are required to show that they can get all their passengers out of a plane in 90 seconds. They run these tests not with real, panicked passengers but by loading the plane with airline employees.” The tests are as meaningless as the rules.

And, of course, it’s worth getting woken up from our naps to buckle our belts and adjust our seats since airplanes crash so often, right? National Transportation Safety Board data for the past full five years indicate some 95 million commercial aircraft hours flown … and nine major accidents! We should credit the FAA with an exceptional safety record.

You’ve got a better chance of being struck by lightning than of crashing in a jet. In fact, you’ve got a better chance of being struck twice by lightning than of going down with one of the big commercial operators.

Did ridiculous rules play a part in the recent meltdown by a fed-up flight attendant? It’s possible. Steven Slater was the JetBlue employee who apparently went on a profane tirade over his plane’s intercom, swiped a cold beer, cracked open the aircraft door, and slid down the emergency chute. Moments earlier, according to media reports, passengers had to be reminded to sit back down in their seats after — horror of horrors! — some scallywags tried to grab their bags before the plane had reached the gate.

This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.

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