Monday, November 28, 2011

Blowing a Circuit Over Everybody's Expertise

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I'll be the first to say that all those people who know about circuit boards and microprocessors are pretty darned clever. But don't let them wander too far from their field of expertise or they wind up making statements that make them sound, well...stupid


I'm referring to an item that ran in the Bits blog of The New York Times online on Sunday headlined, Flyers Must Turn Off Devices, But its Not Clear Why, in which the author, Nick Bilton, disses the safety hazards associated with the use of personal electronic devices on airplanes and cites as the expert, the association representing wireless device manufacturers. 


What fries me about the hew and cry that accompanies this issue each time it is brought up is that people smart enough to be downright boring at a dinner party explaining digital complexities can lift up their eyes from the screen of their iPad and see something like commercial aviation in such starkly simplistic terms. 


Bilton's story boots up with the argument that people routinely do not turn off their devices on airplanes and no planes have crashed. Therefore, no problem exists. There are two problems with that. The first, is that it is wrong. The history of the study of the effect of EMI on airplanes begins with a spectacular mid-air collision - over New York no less - in 1960. At that time it was thought that radio interference caused the pilots of a United DC-8 to believe their VOR receiver was not working, resulting in the plane being off course and colliding with a TWA Super Constellation. 


Since then there have been other accidents studied by the members of the RTCA committee which has been investigating the potential for gadgets to interfere with airplane systems. When I wrote about this for the Times in January of this year, one of the  members mentioned several accidents (some of them quite well known) in which EMI was considered a likely contributing factor. Electromagnetic interference, unlike bent metal or broken parts, leaves no trace. 


Still, there have been many reports of pilots experiencing problems in the cockpit that did not lead to disaster that were were tracked back to a passenger using an electronic device. You can read more about them here.


But the second and larger problem with the story is that it is another rallying cry for air travelers who don't get that aviation accidents aren't an A-follows-B sort of thing, like plugging a fork into a wall outlet and watching the fireworks begin.  Absent a plane-spiraling-to-earth-event, everyone armed with a Google-equipped iPod (forgive me, Android) now feels that is perfectly appropriate to to make their own decision about whether to heed the flight attendant's plea to kindly power down anything with an ON/OFF switch.  A lack of accidents is not evidence of air safety and its frightening that passengers feel equipped to make safety decisions on their own with this yardstick as measuring device. 


Bilton brings his argument on home by quoting an executive of the International Association for Wireless Communications, a trade group representing the device manufacturers, hardly an unbiased source. The executive reassures Times readers that aircraft wiring is shielded. Well, yeah. We know that. He does not suggest the impact of 200-400 plus passengers, each with 2 to 3 devices all powered up and ready to go may be slightly beyond what any airplane designer may have had in mind a decade or more ago when the PED wasn't SOP for everyone over the age of 3. We're not even talking about the thousands of airplanes in service around the world that were designed prior to the 1990s. 


Anyway, I'm not feeling so good about the integrity of all that communications gear or even the robustness of the shielding of airplane wiring, which will always be one or two digital generations behind the device manufacturers. (I say this having spent five years on an F.A.A. committee on aging aircraft wiring. See me later.)


So when I get on an airplane and I am mildly tempted to keep my Kindle on, or squeeze a few more photos on my digital camera, I resist that temptation. To steel my spine I need only remember the what Boeing had to say about the matter. 


"Operators of commercial airplanes have reported numerous cases of portable electronic devices affecting airplane systems during flight. These devices, including laptop and palmtop computers, audio players/recorders, electronic games, cell phones, compact-disc players, electronic toys, and laser pointers, have been suspected of causing such anomalous events as autopilot disconnects, erratic flight deck indications, airplanes turning off course, and uncommanded turns. Boeing has recommended that devices suspected of causing these anomalies be turned off during critical stages of flight."

Digital blogger or Boeing guidance? For me, it's not a tough call.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Picking on the Airlines Always Politically Profitable

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Airlines are making billions from the baggage fees they started charging in 2005. In the last four years, they've raked in some $6 billion as I reported in The New York Times this spring. Now comes Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana with a plan that will mandate that airlines include one checked bag in the price of a ticket. The senator recognizes that there is a problem. Her solution, however is all wrong. 

While airlines are raking in money by the suitcase-full, they are sloughing off on passengers and the Transportation Security Administration, the burdensome consequences of bag fees. The TSA estimates checkpoint workers are inspecting 59 million more bags as people bring their luggage with them on the airplane.  

Once on board, passengers are fighting for overhead bin space. Flight attendants are left to mediate. Checked bag fees have had negative consequences for everyone except the airlines. 

But let's think about the airlines for just a minute. For an industry heavily reliant on oil, the check bag fee can be the difference between red and black ink on the balance sheet. And really, considering that on an airplane, weight equals fuel, what's wrong with an airline charging to move our stuff?

Now, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday travel period, Sen. Landrieu is proposing an Airline Passenger Basics Act that would require airlines to accommodate one checked bag and one carry on bag in the ticket price. It would also require the airlines to provide unspecified "basic amenities".

When government starts telling private businesses what they can and cannot charge for, I think we are on a slippery slope. "The government deregulated aviation in 1978," said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association. "Having the government dictate prices and services is a 30-year step backwards."

There's also something arbitrary about focusing on airlines. Last month I rented a car from Avis and before I drove off, I had to navigate through no less than seven ancillary-fee related services; from turning on the satellite car  radio to activating the tollway pass. Why is it okay for the government to tell airlines what they can charge while leaving other businesses alone? I put this question to Jay Sorensen, a guru on airline revenue who runs IdeaWorks, an aviation revenue consulting firm.

"What's next, the 'French Fry Act' which would require McDonald's to include an order fries with every hamburger?"  Jay asked, rhetorically. "Congress has no business legislating the price of services offered by a private company." 

On this, I think he's right.  But Landrieu has a valid point, too. 

TSA screening costs have increased by $260 million a year, the senator's office said in a press release.  "These additional costs are the direct result of airlines’ checked baggage fees and taxpayers are being forced to pick up the tab." 

To the extent that airline baggage fees  have impacted a government provided service, the airlines have some financial obligation.  Sen. Landrieu should be trying to figure out a way to re-capture from the airlines what their baggage fee decision has cost the rest of us, without legislating the way airlines provide services. Its doable, but requires something a little more thoughtful than playing to the highly excitable American air traveler

 

 



Friday, November 18, 2011

Pilots, the Devil and the Horns of a Dilemma

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You may have heard the joke about the airline pilot who goes to hell only to find on arrival that rather than an eternity suffering fire and brimstone, his hell will be spent doing endless walk-arounds in blizzard conditions. (That’s not the punch line, but this is a family blog, and I can’t print the rest of it. Ask Jim Hall or see me later.) 

Another version of pilot hell might be something like what happened to the captain of a Chautauqua  Airlines/Delta Connection flight earlier this week en route from Ashville, North Carolina to New York.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Airline Gets a Bitch-Slap from the NTSB. Ouch!

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Deborah Hersman photo from NTSB
Its apparent that the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board is a beauty. I've heard people describe her as "angelic". Here's her photo. You be the judge.

But don't let that cutie-pie face deceive you. Deborah Hersman is no delicate flower when it comes to fools or manipulators. In a letter to Pinnacle Airlines today, Ms. Hersman (ordinarily I'd call her Deb but I'm still in shock and awe. Give me a minute to recover.) demands that the company, parent of regional carrier Colgan Air, do what it failed to do during a near year-long investigation; surrender all records having to do with the training and qualifications of the crew of Colgan Air flight 3407.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Aviation Reporting 101 What Is and What Is NOT a Story

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Earlier today, (yes I'm blogging twice today, but I can't help myself!) I wrote about the excellent story by CBS4 Denver journalist Rick Sallinger questioning whether the emergency oxygen masks on a Frontier flight deployed as they should have last month, the kind of story that serves the public and the industry by casting fresh eyes on what might be an otherwise unexamined incident. 

But before I'd even hit the "publish" key a loyal reader sent a link to what ABC seven-on-your-side reporter Michael Finney  in San Francisco thinks is news, a 2 minute plus tear-jerker of a story about Terri Weissinger, who made a home for herself in the San Francisco Airport in April.

A Clear-Headed Response to Dizzying Flight

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Photo courtesy Andrew Vos and CBS-4 TV Denver
Passengers on Frontier Airlines Flight 787 were startled when the oxygen masks dropped as the airplane was cruising above the Rocky Mountains at 36,000 feet last month. But just how confused they were by an apparent shortage of oxygen masks is just becoming clear from a story reported by Rick Sallinger of the CBS television station in Denver.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

AirTran's Lesson to a Certain Airline: It's the Communication Stupid

5 comments:
AirTran in Phoenix
Last year at this time, while traveling on AirTran from Phoenix to New York, my connecting flight out of Atlanta was canceled due to a problem with the airplane. Since it was the last flight of the evening, AirTran officials had to find overnight accommodations and rebook seats for the following day for a planeload of tired and disappointed travelers.