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Pushing back on Delta Airlines
Getting reading to push back on Delta Airlines. Photo via Darren Erik Vengroff’s iPhone

Like many of you, I was excited to read that the FAA decided to allow use of portable electronics below 10,000 feet. And like most of you, I assumed that it would take months for airlines to implement the change.

Months might feel like a lifetime in the startup world where we spend most of our time, but for an airline, it still sounded good pretty good to me.

Two days after the FAA announcement, I was at JFK airport getting ready to board Delta’s flight 161 to Seattle. As we boarded, one of the flight attendants explained that gate-to-gate usage of tablets, Kindles, and phones in airplane mode was now permitted. This was her first flight under Delta’s brand new gate-to-gate electronics policy.

She said she was as happy to not have to chide passengers to turn off their devices as she hoped they would be to be able to keep using them. The basic rule is that if it’s smaller than a laptop you can use it gate-to-gate.

It seemed almost impossible. The FAA makes a change, and two days later I can use my devices? Well, here’s the proof. I kept my phone on in “airplane mode” from gate to landing and snapped a few pictures before we reached 10,000 feet just to document the experience.

The late-afternoon peak departure traffic was just ramping up at JFK, which meant there were ten to fifteen planes already lined up ahead of us on the taxiway. Usually, this is dead time for me, where, if I’m lucky I have one of my old analog notebooks in my pocket and can jot down some new ideas or work through some problems with older one. If I’m unlucky, it’s just me and the dog-eared SkyMall catalog in the seat pocket.

The author on his iPad on a Delta flight

So this seemed like a perfectly good time to pull out the iPad, which is now usable from gate-to-gate, though Wi-Fi is still only available above 10,000 feet.

Below 10,000 feet I read and replied to some email I had downloaded before boarding. It was like the old pre-GoGo days, except that I synced when we hit 10,000 feet instead of five hours later when we landed in Seattle. I also did a little e-reading.

I saw other passengers around the cabin holding tablets, phones, and Kindles, trying to resist the instinct to hunch over or hide their device behind a magazine lest a passing flight attendant scold them.

Time passed quickly and soon we were wheels up and flying past Terminal 2.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking that it won’t be long before this is all the butt of a Louis C.K. joke. But all joking aside, the fact that Delta implemented this change in two days floored me. Sure, the safety video still had the old rules, but the flight attendants announced, both before and after they played the video, that things had changed and devices smaller than laptops were allowed. It sure looked to me like everyone got it.

Of course Delta didn’t really do this in two days.

They had been working with the FAA for months in anticipation of the rule change. More importantly, they had put together staff training programs that had been running for weeks and had press releases and customer-facing FAQs drafted and ready to be released on a moment’s notice. So when the FAA finally changed their rules, Delta was able to pivot the changes onto thousands of flights in just two days.

They’ve even put out this promotional video, showcasing Lily’s excitement about usage of devices below 10,000 feet.

It’s easy, coming from the startup world to be cynical about big companies and see them as nothing but dinosaurs waiting to be disrupted.

But, in rare cases like this where one of them plans, executes, and really does delight their customers, I think it is certainly worth calling it out. Any company, big or small, in any industry can learn from this.

Darren Erik Vengroff is Chief Scientist at RichRelevance. He is a computer scientist, entrepreneur, world traveller and avid amateur cook.

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