Passengers Removed for Non-Compliance: A Pilot’s View.

Kicked off: 100 Jewish students were asked to leave an AirTran flight headed for Atlanta from New York last Monday

You probably read the headline, which made the news more because of the students’ baseless allegation that they we’re removed from their flight because they were Jewish. (Read the story: click here)

But let’s go beyond that smokescreen and look at the real issue from a pilot’s viewpoint–because it was a pilot’s responsibility to have them removed for non-compliance with crewmember instructions.

There are two issues here: electronic interference from handheld devices in flight, and equally important, compliance with federal regulations and flight crew instructions. First, let’s look at electronic devices and their possible effect on a flight.


Let’s go to the heart of the matter: landings. Why? Because this is the phase of flight during which the instrument guidance is arguably to most vital: you’re dealing with limited or practically speaking, no visibility as you attempt to land (versus taking off, when you’re climbing away from the terrain) and are therefore very dependent on your instruments for crucial guidance about pitch, roll descent rate and altitude.


Pilots are dependent upon the information gleaned from an array of very sensitive electronic signals generated both on the ground and on board, which provide critical safety and navigation parameters for an approach. Would a handheld device somewhere in the cabin affect these signals or worse, put out signals of it’s own that would interfere with aircraft systems?

Engineers say “maybe,” which is secret engineer (god love ’em, they’ve built us some fantastic air machines) code for “we can’t rule that out.” Do you as a passenger want that “ruled out” as your flight approaches the concrete on instruments at 160 mph?


A typical counter argument we often hear is this: “Sure, fly-by-wire (meaning, no direct cables to controls but rather, electronic servos) aircraft like the Airbus could be susceptible, but your average passenger jet actually does have cable controls, which are not subject to electronic interference.”

But the problem is, even those aircraft with direct control linkage, when operating on autopilot, are then controlled by servos that are susceptible to electronic interference. A stray signal can–and has–created a spurious autopilot input and when aircraft (fly-by-wire or control cable) are within feet of the ground, that interference can be disastrous.

Big picture answer, from the pilot perspective: we work hard to eliminate all variables in the safe approach to poor ceiling and visibility landings. We HAVE to ensure the validity of the data that substitutes for our own visual cues in order to land in marginal flight conditions, or we simply can’t–or won’t–land.

Which brings us to issue number two: compliance with federal regulations and flight crew instructions. And let’s get back to the youth group in question. Complaince is a binary–you either do, or don’t. There’s no room for “we think it’s okay to have our cellphones on in flight–so we won’t comply.”

They clearly don’t understand the binary nature of compliance or more importantly, the equally black and white nature of my options as a pilot, given the circumstances: I have to ensure the flight is operated in full compliance with all federal regulations (“cell phones and personal electronic devices off for taxi-out and take-off”), just as I have to–as noted above–be confident in the integrity of the instrumentation upon which I base our ability to safely fly.


To make matters worse, albeit simpler, in today’s air travel environment, the issue of compliance is even more cut-and-dried than ever. Used to be, if we had an non-compliance issue, I could personally go back and explain the situation and gain the compliance we need to satisfy the ironclad regulatory and safety requirements mentioned above. Those days ended on September 11th, 2001. Now, pilots will by regulation (if not common sense) stay on the flight deck and simply enforce whatever the cabin crew requires to ensure compliance, period. Rule one in that dilemma is don’t take off with a problem you don’t want to handle again in the air or on landing.

There again is the simple binary: comply, or don’t fly.

Student group boarding the AirTran flight in Atlanta.

I don’t wish the kids involved in this incident anything other than better experiences in the future, although given the regulatory and safety explanations above, I can’t find it anything other than disappointing that some of them would try to make this an ethnic or racial incident.

In fact, summer time is all about student travel, often in large groups, and most are very well-behaved. I’m glad to be taking them on the first or last leg of their adventure. But maybe the primary lesson that needs to come before–and during–the educational experience is one regarding mandatory compliance with legitimate instructions: comply, or don’t fly.

And now they know why.


35 Responses to “Passengers Removed for Non-Compliance: A Pilot’s View.”

  1. Shikhar Joshi Says:

    Damn, you’re right 🙂

  2. I disagree. Has there ever been one circumstance of passenger’s cellphone, tablet, or laptop actually interfering with a critical avionics system? Not to my knowledge. And given that pilots are now using iPads for flight manuals, it’s a stretch to argue that handheld devices must be seen proactively as a menace.

    Yes it’s possible, but the question is: how likely? 10,001 things can go wrong every time an aircraft flies. We daily ignore many of these 10,001 scenarios (e.g. simultaneous serious medical problems with both pilots) as too improbable to worry about.

    In any event, the FAA has a proposed rule-making underway on this subject, and I suspect its outcome will be a phase-in of a certification requirement for large passenger aircraft to be invulnerable to routine consumer electronics products. Could (and should) have been done 10 years ago.

    Meanwhile I have no sympathy whatsoever with passengers who do not comply with lawful instructions of the flight crew, even if the instructions are not legitimately grounded in fact.

    • You’re missing one very important point that also undergirds the prohibition: in critical situations where vital instructions must be either briefed or in an actual emergency, carried out immediately, all attention must be focused on the crew–not your phone, memos, email, entertainment, photos or anything BUT the crew.

      In an emergency, time is often critical–like in a ground evacuation–and delayed compliance (“Huh? Did she say …”) can cost others dearly. No time to get passengers off of their individual devices–needs to be assured, according to the FAA and common sense, before the critical situation occurs.

      You demonstrate the same immature attitude as the teens when you decide that you personally can judge what is “legitimately grounded in fact” according to “your knowledge.” You really don’t know what you don’t know, but that’s beside the point: you agree to comply when you board the plane.

      • I object to that representation. I am a former faculty member at the nation’s largest electrical engineering school, and I also have more hours inside aircraft than half of the pilots in whom I put my trust.

        And as I said, pending the forthcoming review by the FAA (which will almost certainly un-do the current position), it is the obligation of passengers to comply immediately with lawful instructions. And for that reason I personally do not use my approved electronic devices below 10,000 feet – as unfounded in reality as the current prohibition may be.

      • Whenever pilots hear “I’ve got more hours inside aircraft than most pilots” we immediately know the speaker is full of hot air: besides the fact that I know you don’t have “more time” in aircraft than I’ve logged in 34 years as a professional pilot (USAF pilot and American Airlines), it’s ludicrous to think that whatever “time” you’ve spent in an aircraft doing anything other than flying it gives you any credibility with those of us who actually do.

        Which is probably why you’ve completely overlooked the explanation regarding full attention on crew instructions, but that’s okay. Maybe after a few more hours “inside aircraft” the light of common sense will flicker on for you.

        By the way, my hat is off, as I said, to all the amazing engineers, particularly at Boeing and GE–for making us such amazing air machines. I will always buy any Boeing engineer a beer any time–the 737-800 is truly a pilot’s aircraft.

      • It’s not difficult to have more hours in the air than ERJ pilots. And with respect to passenger compliance, most of us in the back actually have a much better idea of the level of passenger compliance on personal electronic devices than the FAs, much less the pilots up front. The irony is, the primary enforcement of current rules on electronic devices comes not from the FAs or even the PAs of pilots, but rather from adjacent passengers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen one passenger threaten to call a FA unless another passenger complies. Likewise seatbelts.

        Congratulations for your 34 years. That’s how long I’ve been doing it. By the way, I’ve been in the air 15 hours during the last 72, and I’m an Exec Plat and lifetime Plat on your employer. Odds are I’ve been in the back while you fly. See you around, perhaps. But you haven’t convinced me one bit on your original position.

      • More “hours in the air” than ERJ pilots? Maybe–but the ERJ pilots aren’t just sitting in the back, they’re actually flying the jet. Another crucial difference you seem not to perceive, but not surprising given your perception that you as a passenger have more effectiveness than the crew.

        Whatever. The important thing is that we have a safe, orderly flight despite whatever daydreams may be going on in back.

      • Lego Spaceman Says:

        Is your Beer offer valid for other forms of liquid refreshment?

      • Lemonade or coconut milk, both included.

      • Jody Davis Says:

        I’m pretty shocked that anyone would claim that an hour spent sitting in the back of the plane, reading your iPad and listening to your mp3 player, is equivalent to an hour up front actually flying the plane. Shows an amazing lack of self-awareness.

      • Pete Pharr Says:

        Hi Chris — Regardless of the “…I am a former faculty member at the nation’s largest electrical engineering school…” hubris (I simply hear Charlie Brown’s teacher talking), you are right on target. There are airline testimonies out the wazoo going back to early days of the DC-3 that show that crews often have but brief moments in critical parts of the flight (takeoff, landing) to ONLY make one decision…and only one chance at the correct decision. There is no room for any additional “maybes” from spurrious signals. (Witness the Blackhawks that crashed because of AM/FM interference and bad shielding. (shouldn’t happen “in theory”, but in reality its an every present accident waiting to happin in the “University of Reality”. 2nd Point for Professor Airbag.. People forget that flying on a Pt 121 carrier is a PRIVILEGE, and not a right (regardless of degree, IQ, ethnicity, hight, weight, or political or Spiritual affiliation.) I fear the FAA under this PR craving administration will cave on this issue to pander to the flying public and sooner or later result in a bad accident … and likely a crew with decades of experience will be drawn and quartered after bureaucrats CYA to protect their pensions after relaxing the 10,000 foot rule. Be safe.

    • drnjbmd Says:

      I always tell my patients (I am a surgeon) that experience is not the best teacher, wisdom is the best teacher. I don’t have to jump out of a second story window to know that it is going to hurt when I hit the ground. Just because there are no “stories” of interference, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or can’t happen. I have seen enough “perfect storms” of events that were not “supposed” to happen but did.

      Perhaps we, as the flying public are fortunate enough to have professionals in the cockpit that make the necessary adjustments and get us where we are going safely. If the FAA has rules, we abide by them and we follow all crewmember instructions without question or “being cute”. When and if, the FAA changes the rules, we will abide by the new changes.

      I don’t want anyone at 30,000 feet who can’t follow instructions on the ground; this means drunks, kids or anyone else. If you come into my operating room, you follow my instructions or you leave without question. I am not being unreasonable but the patient on the table is my first concern.

  3. I have never bought into the theory of the normal cell phone causing a problem with the instruments. I think this rule is about compliance. As a pilot or passenger, I feel the same about passengers with cell phones. I don’t want the on and I want to rule to remain exactly as it is.

    It is possible to modify a cell phone that would cause a problem with the instruments. That would be bad if a terrorist did this on a flight.

    A possible terrorist could be in contact with his buddies on the ground. “I’m over downtown now!” Here comes the missile. Or he could place the call that activates the bomb on board. Again, very bad.

    They could coordinate their actions to take over the airplane or many other possible actions and they are all bad.

    Are these kids terrorists? No, they are not. But I believe the real reason the rule exists is so that the passengers can listen to the safety briefing. They also need to listen to directions in case of a ground egress. Finally, they do not get the right to disturb the person in the rows around them during this time. They might not care, but I do.

    Do I think this is the only thing they did? No, I do not believe that this was a single action of non-compliance. Back talking, talking loudly, listening to music, playing games, talking on the phone, texting, or whatever else they did got the attention of the flight attendant. I am sure they asked at least once for the kids to change their behavior.

    They didn’t and the Captain did the right thing. He backed his crew and kicked them off. Now they claim it was because they are Jewish? Just another example of their immaturity. Their parents should have been on them when they were five. It is too late now, they are stupid, immature, irresponsible, and now blameless.

    The real problem is that is twenty years, their generation will be the leaders of the country. That is the worst thing that could ever happen.

    • You’ve zeroed in on the root cause–parenting–and I suppose the next evidence of the parental failure consistent with the behavior of the kids will be anything other than parental discipline, rather than excuses for the non-compliance.

      As I mentioned, though, most groups are well-behaved and most chaperones in control. That makes the behavior in this case all the more deplorable. But read the comment here from the guy who believes he knows better regarding the requirements based on his “knowledge.” Some people will always believe that they can decide what’s right or wrong with instructions, but following them is still mandatory.

    • For anyone who has ever had a BlackBerry, you know that they can and will generate a tremendous amount of RFI. When placed on a desk near a landline phone, it would break into a call with what sounded like fast morse code. I have personally experienced the phone resetting an alarm clock; actually, it went so far as to kill the LED display. I’ve even heard it emitting that same fast morse code on a speaker when it phone is placed nearby – a speaker that is powered off.

      Anecdotally, the PIC of a 737 that I was a passenger on, confirmed to me that he could often tell that certain brands of phones were on by the same tell-tale being heard over his headset.

      Do they interfere with flight instrumentation? Who knows… but does anyone really want to take a chance on it? Do they interfere with your attention when the flight crew are trying to prepare for or manage an emergency? Absolutely. It’s the same with the recent rule on no laptops in the seat-back pocket; they are so large, that they create an impediment to your ability to egress should the need arise.

      Like Chris, I both understand the need for and the duty to comply with instructions, regardless of how valid >I< think that they are.

      Comply or don't fly. I want to fly on your aircraft, sir.

  4. Lego Spaceman Says:

    Chris has cracked the secret engineer’s code. My fellow nerds and I will retire to our nerd-ery with our calculators to come up with a new code.

    Also, it’s not just the Airbus that is fly-by-wire now. The 787 uses that technology. Average passenger jets are wired-up, electronic machines. Maybe don’t mess around and follow the regulations next time.

    • I actually worry less about spurious control inputs now that I fly the 737 because the lowest weather minimums are hand-flown and landed rather than autopilot-landed like many other airliners. We’re not susceptible to stray electrons since my hands are doing the control inputs. But on the MD-80, which was landed by the autopilot in the lowest weather minimums, I was always concerned.

      • Lego Spaceman Says:

        I’ve been seeing a lot of news stories lately that the FAA is considering relaxing the No Electronic Devices Under 10,000ft Rule.

        Actually that they have put off considering it until September.

  5. An interesting debate – here’s my two penneth, I hope you don’t mind….

    I am an advanced driver here in the UK, I like to think I can handle a vehicle at a higher speed than the limit allows and perhaps I can. Trouble is, the limit is there and enforced and no matter how much I protest that my brakes are better, my reactions are quicker or that I have never had an accident, I am still bound by the limit and will be punished if I exceed it. The same is true of all walks of life – there are rules that we may or may not agree with but we must follow or lose the privileges that obeying those rules allow us to enjoy – be it flying, driving or whatever else our passion may be.

  6. Reblogged this on viptraveluk's Blog and commented:
    With many groups heading off together in the summer, maybe educating them on the WHY’s before they board could save this happening as often!

  7. There’s one point that I’m having a hard time dealing with regarding electronic devices on board.

    If the FAA thought for a millisecond that the safety of an airliner was being put at risk, do you think we would be “on our honor” to power them down?

    • So, you’re saying there might be another reason? Could it be what I’ve been saying about undivided attention to crew instructions during those critical phases of flight?

      • Absolutely. But with all due respect, I believe that if you thought that someone’s electronic device could compromise your control of the aircraft, you .. personally .. would be at the boarding door checking pockets, purses, bags.

        We trust the folks on the flight deck but when we get information from them that’s illogical, we get confused. We still comply, of course, but it makes for interesting discussion on the ground.

      • Maybe the FAA and the airlines need to refocus the understanding of the reason for the rule, moving beyond just electrical interference (which engineers say can’t be rule out) and more on the attention to and compliance with crew instructions.

  8. Cedarglen Says:

    Great post, Chris. My odd thoughts if I may: First, I do NOT know the absolute answer to the electronic interference debate, but mature enough to error on the side o f extreme caution. S/he who cannot exist without their ‘device’ for 30 minutes has issues that are beyond the scope of this conversation. Second, is compliance. You need to give reasons or engage in debate. A you so put it so well, it is a binary and if compliance is not achieved, we ain’t going flying! Period. As for the claim of ethnic discrimination, two simple words: Bull and shit! What the hell is wrong with those pampered little brats? I applaud the Air-Tran captain that ordered them off his airplane, even it meant cancelling the flight. That’s also a binary and the gentleman had no choice – and made exactly the proper choice. I think is sad that a post like this one is necessary, but you said it very well. Thanks. -C.

    • Cedarglen Says:

      Correction: Make that, “You need NOT give reasons or engage in debate…” Brain not connected to fingers. -C.

  9. Fr. Jeremiah Says:

    Might I just add to the good Captain’s side of the conversation that, regardless of the seemingly endless debates about electronic interference with avionics, cell phones, Kindles, iPad/iPods, etc. are all subject to the Law of Inertia. In any scenario involving a sudden stop, these things can all become little projectiles… I don’t really fancy getting whacked in the back of the head by an iPhone 5 traveling at V1, thanks!

    The most disturbing part of the whole story, to me, was the inability of the young people to follow simple instructions… and their blatant disregard for complying with competent authority! I might also ask Mr. Till to speculate about how many of those 100 students could have actually articulated their disobedience and lack of respect in terms of the academic debate about personal electronic devices and the potential for interfering with the electronic systems of the aircraft.

    Furthermore, I find the insinuation that this had anything to do with race, ethnicity or religion to be wholly repugnant…the undisciplined whining of over-privileged, under-disciplined petulant children.

    Thanks for the post, Captain!

  10. Captain,

    I appreciate your perspective on this, but I have a hard time buying the argument that electronic devices aren’t permitted due to compliance issues. If the goal is to make passengers pay attention to the safety briefing, why am I fully permitted to read a paperback copy of the same book that I was reading on my Kindle before the forward door was closed? Or how about the guy with the Wall Street Journal spread wide in front of him, blocking his view of the cabin? It happens all the time, yet it’s permitted because it’s made out of paper! If the rule is actually in place to make people pay attention, make people put away all of their stuff, not just the electronics, and pay attention.

    Unrelated, given what’s been said here, what are your feelings about the FAA granting your employer permission to allow pilots to carry iPad’s in the cockpit? Doesn’t that fly in the face of the “we’ve gotta be 100% certain that there’s no possibility of any sort of interference?” argument? How is your iPad in airplane mode in the cockpit (next to the instruments!) any different from my iPad in airplane mode back in row 30?

    Thanks for the debate!

    • American and the FAA did a year and a half of ops testing to be sure the iPad was safe for use (Delta is going through the same certification with their tablet) and part of the procedure includes the checklist item certifying that both pads are in “flight” mode.

      Kind of different than a free-for-all “bring whatever you want” on board.

  11. Is this guy joking? I know better than you because I’m Exec Plat.? Have another vodka and soda during those hours of being inside the plane

    • While the guy was certainly a douche, I think he does have a point about a few things: 1) that the pilots can’t tell the level of enforcement of the rules from up front (however he neglects to note that pilots often deadhead in the cabin, nor the fact that pilots talk to flight attendants!). 2) that “enforcement” is often up to fellow passengers who have to remind their seatmates about the rules, because the flight attendants can’t see everywhere all the time – or some just don’t care that much.

  12. Peter Obstler Says:

    I think you Mr,. Pilot are missing the point. Ypu would do well to not read but integrate the responses, including those from educators human behaviorists who have this right. Indeed, your “binary” approach only serves to . . .

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