Michael O'Leary has an acolyte in Nick Bilton, The New York Times technology writer who is on a tear about those "silly rules airlines have about not using electronic device use below 10,000 feet. As the year draws to a close, his most recent post is inciting some to petition the Federal Aviation Administration to do away with these pesky airline restrictions.
In January 2011, after three months of reporting and more than 30 interviews with engineers and airplane manufacturers, I wrote a story for this same newspaper suggesting that, yes indeed, electronic devices can interfere with flight systems on commercial planes. A month after the story ran, a source provided me with a confidential document from International Air Transport Association showing that the 10 reports filed by American pilots over the years was just a small part of what international pilots were finding. You can read the full story here.
Disregarding the concerns of pilots and many aviation industry experts, Bilton suggests that it is the ban that is the safety problem because if passengers continue to be denied, they're going to get violent. This is an ironic position considering it is his blog posts - not to mention his radio appearances - that are in some part responsible for confusing the public about the risk. Alec Baldwin gets some of the credit, too.
Questioning the status quo is okay, that's what good journalists do. What separates Bilton's posts from good journalism, however, is the absence of a single interview with anyone who is actually knowledgeable on the subject.
He's hooked into the world of technology, alright. But what he knows does not exist in isolation. Technology, aviation and safety come together in a complex junction, one this guy's barged into after running headlong down one narrow avenue. Every time he writes, "there's no proof electronics can harm a plane's avionics" he displays how little he understands about safety as a system.
He might sound a little more sophisticated, if he went beyond the public relations department of the FAA. (And they must take some of the blame for providing conflicting and confusing answers to Bilton's questions.) Where are the electrical engineers, the aeronautical engineers, the aviation safety specialists? They don't appear in any of the Bilton-by lined stories I've seen.
For whatever reason, Bilton has made it his mission to get PED restrictions changed. Earlier this year the FAA requested comments on when PED use should be allowed.
With the imprimatur of the Times, Bilton could be successful. Maybe when he's done he can start on that safety briefing my friend gets so annoyed about. Really' where's the proof it has any effect on safety?