The Tragedy of the Commons, at 35,000 feet

The ethics of using WiFi during a modern commercial flight fascinates me. It might seem an unpromising topic but bear with me, as, I think, it reveals something intriguing about the way human beings balance the needs of the group and of the individual.

I’m writing this whilst flying home from Madrid to Manchester with budget carrier Iberian Express. The airline hasn’t expressly forbidden use of mobile technology during the flight; or, if it has, nobody has made it clear at any time and I certainly didn’t notice.

An announcement was even made to encourage passengers to use their phones to access in-flight entertainment via the plane’s own WiFi system. On the back of the seat in front of me, a sign explains how this works;

1. Go into airplane mode.

2. Select Iberia Express as your WiFi provider.

3. Go to

After completing step 3, you can then buy films and other entertainment.

These instructions thus connect, in the passenger’s mind, the act of going into airplane mode with the decision to use Iberia’s entertainment service.

At no point has anyone suggested that airplane mode should be selected purely for safety reasons.

However, if you were to read the concealed safety card in the seat pocket immediately in front of you, you would find that the way that electronic devices are supposed to be used varies during the flight.

For instance, laptops may be used in flight mode when cruising but should always be switched off when encountering turbulence.

Mobiles are different again. They can be operated in flight mode at all times but may only be be connected to a network when the plane is on the ground.

Presumably, the existence of these rules implies that there’s a safety issue associated with using portable electronic devices on aeroplanes. But if there is, it’s being ignored by dozens of people all around me all of the time.

The airline is complicit in this collective act. Its complex safety guidelines are only explained on the back of the concealed plastic instruction sheet but no serious effort has been made to engage passengers with this information.

Further, the well publicised in-flight entertainment service is an outright invitation to use electronic equipment, with no mention being made of the apparent risks associated with doing so in the wrong way.

I’m also puzzled by the risky behaviour of the passengers themselves. Do they not know about the risks?

Perhaps not.

Or maybe they assume that;

1. The risk is probably minimal (based on what technical assessment?).

2. The airline doesn’t appear to take the risk seriously so why should they?

3. Other passengers are disregarding the rules so why should anyone, individually, adhere to them?

4. If most or all other passengers obey, it probably won’t matter if one person doesn’t – and, anyway, “all I’m doing is checking Facebook”.

This last point is an example of “tragedy of the commons” thinking whereby the defection of an individual from a collective act of good behaviour is deemed acceptable to that individual on the assumption that most or all others are likely to obey.

Thus, in the main, compliance is still assured whilst the individual enjoys the benefits of defection.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking tends to be self-reinforcing.

If I suspect you and others of following this logic, then I might conclude there is little point in my complying with the rules so I am likely to defect too.

The net result of all this perverse reasoning is a kind of collective, unspoken agreement whereby rules are agreed and published in the full and certain knowledge that the chance they will be adhered to is effectively nil.

Yet, at no point, does anybody ever ask what the true level of risk of non-compliance might be to their own life.

And this strikes me as the oddest part of the whole business; and deeply, typically human.


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