Friday, December 30, 2011

Aviation - This Thing We Love

Despite scarey decompressions, a you-can-not-make-this-up event on a commuter flight to New York, the inexplicable but global trend of attacking pilots with lasers, an elevation of rhetoric in politics and in aviation and some truely appalling carrying-on by air travelers who really should know better (Gerard! Alec! Leisha! what got into you?) aviation was blessed this year with many, many happy landings.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Why Blogging Ain't Reporting (That Means You BITS)

Yep, I'm a blogger and I'm a reporter. And sometimes I'm an advocate. When I'm all objective and such, you'll find my byline in The New York Times and the Dallas Morning News, et cetera, et cetera. But when a blog is actually in The New York Times, that line between reporter and opinionator gets blurry pretty darn fast. And to the question, "Is a blog post in the Times subject to the same editorial review as print version?" the answer appears to be not so much. But if you ask me, it oughta' be.

My problem is with the series of posts written by Nick Bilton, lead technology reporter/writer for The New York Times Bits blog.  These tweet-sized bits of so-called reporting are delivered to the reader with all the impact of the Gray Lady herself. Even though nothing he's written on the subject of the use of personal electronic devices on airplanes rises to what the discerning reader would consider a basic journalistic standard.

By way of background, and in truth, full disclosure, I'm a little prickly on the subject. In January 2011, after more than two months research and 30 interviews I reported for The New York Times that pilots, aeronautical and electrical engineers and air safety investigators were concerned about the increased use of hand held gadgets on airplanes and the potential for  electromagnetic interference with flight deck instruments. We air travelers aren't the only ones who have gone digital. The formerly mechanical airplane has too and this has created a potential conflict. The navigation, communication and operational systems can be affected by extraneous signals from all the gizmos we bring on board.

The authorities looking into the issue found 10 reports filed by commercial airline pilots who suspected electronic devices had interfered with flights under their command. 

Following the publication of that story, a confidential source provided me with a study from the International Air Transport Association showing that the problem was global in scope. I wrote a follow up here in my blog, and provided the study to ABC News which produced its own investigative report this summer.

Nevertheless, just in time for the holiday travel season, Bilton has dipped his toe into the water of aviation safety and with the imprimatur of the same New York Times suggests all those worries are for babies. There's no real safety risk in using personal electronic devices during critical phases of flight. Bilton bases his conclusion on the fact that, and I'm gonna quote him here,

"no crashes were attributed to people using technology on a plane."

Well, first of all, that's wrong, which he would have known if he'd even read the previous Times story on the subject. Electromagnetic interference could not be ruled out as a factor in the 2003 crash of an commuter crash in New Zealand. And it was a mid-air collision over New York City in 1960 that first got the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics looking into the issue. 

Even so, anyone with more than a "I've heard the safety briefing" background in aviation, knows an absence of accidents is not evidence of safety, any more than arriving home alive after driving  intoxicated is evidence that there's no risk in driving drunk.

By the time Bilton opines next on the subject, he's gobsmacked that the transition to electronic flight bags means pilots will soon be using iPads in the cockpit. More proof, he concludes that EMI presents no flight threat.

"pilots with iPads will be enclosed in the cockpit just a few inches from critical aviation equipment."

There are a number of significant differences between the use of a well-tested and controlled device in the cockpit by the people actually flying the airplane and the use in the back of hundreds of electronic devices in Lord-knows-what state. Just ask yourself, how long would it take a pilot to switch off a questionable piece of electronic machinery in the cockpit versus how long would it take a flight attendant to track down a surreptitiously-used device if the pilots even had the time and presence of mind to investigate that possibility during an anomalous event?

So, you can see why I'm frustrated when a guy writing under the masthead of prestigious newspaper says there is no "evidence to support the idea that someone reading an e-book or playing a video game during takeoff or landing is jeopardizing safety."

Well there is evidence, Bilton just zooms right by it.  In the global study, seventy-five pilots reported episodes that concerned them, and folks familiar with the data suggested the 75 is probably about one quarter of the actual number of events, since about one quarter of the world's airlines contribute reports to the database. 

For those who prefer their pilots not to be wetting their pants over suspected EMI flight control issues I'll point out that it is a basic tenet of aviation safety that events are more predictive than accidents. These pilots were reporting on the precursors to crashes.

But Bilton, having spoken to at last count about half a dozen people over the course of four posts tells Times readers its  "time to change the rules."

He's wrong. Aviation's remarkable record is the result of eliminating anticipated risks and creating redundant systems for the risks and errors that are unpredictable. The use of portable electronic devices falls squarely in the former.

Bilton would know that if he felt the need to take his reporting even slightly off the path between his hunches and his biases. As a blogger he may not need to do that, but as someone who's opinions fall under the banner of The New York Times, he and his editors certainly ought to.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pickin' Up a Guy Named Mike From a Trailer Park in Texas

Owen Benjamin reads books on his Ideapad
They're both tall, they're both good lookin' and they're both frequent flyers. But there's a big difference between Alec Baldwin and Owen Benjamin. When a flight attendant tells Owen to turn off his portable electronic device, Owen right away says, "Yes."

That wasn't always the case. But since Owen accepted an offer from Southwest Airlines and Lenovo to  sponsor his quest to set a record for most airports visited in a month, the stand-up comedian-turned road warrior has a new respect for flight attendants.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Flying the Modern Airliner Through Magical Skies

Scene from Lufthansa Flight 400 today
All the great aviation writers, Antoine Saint Exupery, Ernest K. Gann, William Langewiesche, even the Boeing 747 designer Joseph Sutter (a surprisingly good writer for an engineer) know that flying is an exquisite balance of science and art. There’s poetry in the skies and plenty of it. 

Nevertheless, the world of air travel we know today is reliant on the hard reality of complex and interconnected systems.  I mention this having just returned from Ethiopia, where Ethiopian Airlines, joined the Star Alliance and became - in my opinion - the perfect illustration of the yin and yang of the skies. 

Ethiopian Q400 at Lalibela Airport
To many people - even plane geeks - what airlines participate in what alliances, is of little interest.  I got that. But it is worth pausing to appreciate how an airline can connect a traveler to twelve-hundred destinations in 189 countries while serving corners of the world so remote that the local airport is one of few places in the area with electricity. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Airline Stars in Sandals and Sashes

Don’t say that airline executives are stuffed shirts because today two dozen of them including United's Jeff Smisek, Air Canada's Calin Rovinsecu and  Lufthansa's  Christoph Franz gathered to welcome the newest member of the Star Alliance wearing flowing tunics, brightly colored sashes and sandals – no socks. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Holiday Help-Me-Out from a Swiss Samaritan

I travel often enough so that I do not ordinarily forget the essentials. In saying this, I am glossing over how my son Antonio had to race to the train station to bring me my passport two weeks ago when I left for the airport without it. Okay, I had a good excuse; I changed handbags the morning of my trip to Copenhagen and neglected to transfer my passport into my new purse. But other than that, really, I have a system and it does not often fail me.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Alec Baldwin: Don’t Go Actin’ All Stupid on Me

Oh Alec, I know you don’t remember but back in the day when I was a correspondent for CNN and you, the movie star, were a guest on Larry King Live (I said it was back in the day!) you exited the studio, looked around the nearly-empty Saturday afternoon newsroom, our eyes met and you smiled at me. You smiled that sensational, toothy, dimple-punctuated smile, that I’m sexy-but-still–smart-smile and I, well, I let’s just say, I still remember.
You are my handsome fantasy and in respect for all the years that have passed since that day at CNN please don’t ruin it now by going all stupid on me. 

I refer, to your behavior earlier this week on an American Airlines flight in which you decided that an electronic game, albeit a thought-provoking, brain-teaser of a game, was more important than the safety of your fellow airline passengers.

Okay, I know, I’m the geek and you’re the stud muffin, so you are forgiven if you don’t know that the reason those flight attendants ask you to turn off electronic devices is because they emit electromagnetic waves which can, indeed have, interfered with the systems on the flight deck.

This is not a good thing. 

Yes, you have been confused by recent blog posts that suggest the ban on electronic devices is all a plot by the wicked airlines who want to further tick off passengers. But I assure you, oh-man-of-my-dreams, this is not the case

You have heard that modern airplanes are equipped with system shielding that prevents any extraneous signals from penetrating the wires that are critical to the pilots’ navigation and operation of the aircraft or communication from the cockpit.  In theory this is correct. But before you go about assuming that the rules are created by a bunch of worry wart-engineers (okay, they are created by worry-wart engineers) who, in an abundance of caution thrill to act as kill joys to the modern traveler, just let me ask a few questions.

  • How old was the airplane on which you parked your manly physique?
  • When was the last time the integrity of the sheathing that stands between critical wiring and an errant electronic signal from a passenger’s electronic device was examined?
  • How old is your handheld gadget?
  • When was the last time it was tested to be sure its emissions are within standards?
  • What about your fellow passengers? How much do you know about the devices they are using or the batteries providing the juice? Did they purchase said devices from the iPod or Android store, or did those devices fall off a truck and get purchased at the local flea market?

Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live
Alec, dear Alec, of course you don’t know the answers.  But those are just some of the factors that could cause an otherwise benign electronic gadget to start causing havoc with airplane electronics without your ever knowing it. And that is why these rules exist. There are many variables and many unknowns. You're not a pilot, (though you played one on TV) so don’t dismiss the guidance that says during critical phases of flight, electronic devices should be turned off.

You’re not responsible for those good looks of yours or your great brain. God gave you those. But deciding to act stupid is entirely your choice.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

DUIs, Bankruptcies, and Little Old Ladies Who Claim to be Strip Searched

UPDATE: Babbitt resigns at 5:00pm EST

Excerpt from his statement

"I am unwilling to let anything cast a shadow on the outstanding work done 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by my colleagues at the FAA.  They run the finest and safest aviation system in the world and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work alongside them." 
Assorted notes on the latest round of breaking news on the aviation beat. Where to start?

Okay, Randy Babbitt. What is there really to say besides bemoan the tragedy that his arrest in Virginia on Saturday for driving under the influence of alcohol will likely cost the FAA administrator his job.

I have a few correspondents who are delighted schadenfreude-style that the nation's most highly-visible former airline pilot (okay, second to you-know-who) is now on administrative leave which can only be to provide time to collect facts and figure out what statement will accompany his resignation.

On the other hand, I have correspondents who are as gob-smacked by the news as I was when it hit the wires on Monday. Granted, running the FAA with all that's going on these days is one ongoing reason to drink. But with just news accounts to go on, my initial reaction is that the administrator has made a terrible error in judgment. Had the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board not been in a tizzy for the entire length of Mr. Babbitt's time at the FAA over the very subject of judgment, there might be forgiveness for this lapse.

With the crashes of Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2010, Comair flight 5191 in 2006, overflying pilots and sleeping air traffic controllers all seeming to demonstrate a decline in standards of professionalism, there is just too much riding on the maintenance of impeccable behavior by the top dog at the FAA. And in that, he has certainly failed.

Sad. That was how I felt about this yesterday and that's how it feels today.

Incensed is how I was feeling on Sunday when I heard the report of the little old lady en route to Florida who claimed security agents at the JFK airport checkpoint strip searched her before allowing her on jetBlue flight. Incensed because there's nothing about this story that rings true. I am baffled by standards of professionalism in journalism in which the comments of one side in a dispute are reported without evidence or logic to support the validity of the claim.

Lenore Zimmerman, 84, requested a private pat-down screening at the airport and two female agents accompanied her into a room to conduct it, I am told by Greg Soule of the Transportation Security Administration. (You can read the TSA's version of the story here.)

The screening apparently involved the removal of Ms. Zimmerman's back brace or money belt. In an effort to understand the gap between two versions of the story, my mind makes the leap that from the removal of that device, Ms. Zimmerman has come to believe that her privacy was invaded. Perhaps it may even have seemed, upon reflection during a 2-hour flight that the agents looked in her pants and underpants during the process because that is what she told reporters. She wound up her story with a promise to sue.

But the information from the TSA doesn't support the passenger's claim about the length of the screening or that she was asked to remove her clothing during the search. She did not complain to anyone at the time, or appear disturbed upon exiting the screening room.

"Nothing unusual was depicted on the CCTV (closed circuit TV) as the passenger and two female officers entered and exited the room," the TSA blog reports. "The wheelchair attendant assisted the passenger in departing the checkpoint area for the gate."

Since Sunday the story has gone viral. And is that really a surprise?  The news - veracity notwithstanding - has fed the appetites of travelers who cannot get enough of TSA bashing.

There was a time when the likely accuracy of what someone said was a factor in determining what and how an event would be reported. No longer. Certain claims on certain subjects require little more than that they be made. Transportation security and airline indignities are two such subjects.

I'm not starting off the week or leaving you dear readers on a downer. Rather, I'm going to recommend that you read the intriguing analysis of American Airline's bankruptcy filing by William Swelbar (some great name eh?) of MIT who writes on his Swelblog that the legacy carrier could emerge from its woes intact and unmerged.  A little optimism for the beginning of the week, well that's a good thing.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Air Methods, You Just Don't DO That.

The Arabic word "haraam" is such an expressive word because it means two things; that something is forbidden and an activity is shocking. Haraam is the word that comes to my mind with the latest development in the plan to operate a helipad atop Children's Memorial Hospital located on Chicago's Lake Michigan.

In the world of aviation, it is a article of faith that all employees must feel free to speak up about safety. So important is the concept that around the world, workers are encouraged to submit confidential or anonymous safety reports - even about their own mistakes - because with safety, you can't fix what you don't know is broken.

Here is where the behemoth air ambulance company, Air Methods apparently took the fork in the road that separates those that wanna be safe from those that don't, according to a news report on ABC Channel 7 in Chicago. In the story, Ravi Baichwal, reports that an unsigned "whistle-blower" letter was sent to the neighborhood group opposing the helipad claiming that pilots who fly into the present ground-based landing zone for Children's Hospital in nearby Lincoln Park, have complained about operating risks at the high rise. But their concerns have been ignored. Further, they were prohibited from "discussing the subject with anyone" the letter says.

I have little doubt that back in the day when the hospital first conceived of the plan to bring helicopters onto their rooftop, 411 feet in the air, in a canyon of high rise buildings commercial and residential, that it had no idea it would be fighting with the neighbors for years. But fight they have as nearly every claim the hospital made about the benefits was challenged by nearby residents concerned about the risks.

The case got quite complicated. Scientists, engineers and meteorologists were hired by both sides.  (Full disclosure: in 2008, the neighborhood group paid for a data search on the Comprehensive Medical Aviation Safety Database in which I have an interest.)

In a battle pitching expert against expert on subjects as dense as atmospheric boundary layers, vorticity isosurfaces and approach path trajectories, it's hard for the general public to know who is right and who is wrong.

But when the very airmen who will be required to fly say the plan is bad, because there is "nowhere to safely land in an emergency" or that "their helicopter does not have the power to successfully fly away on one engine because of the nearness of surrounding buildings" that makes it pretty clear.

So you can see why these people might be under pressure to keep quiet though to their credit, they have not. Instead, the unsigned letter was sent to Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, the neighbors opposing the helipad, a modern-day David fighting two Goliaths; a prestigious hospital and Air Methods Corporation, the nation's largest provider of air medical transport. The letter arrived just as the slingshot-armed-upstart was nearing the bottom of the bag of rocks.

And now, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation has opened an investigation into whether either the Colorado-based and publicly traded Air Methods or the hospital tried to shush those who had something to say about safety.

Of all the things helicopter ambulance companies and their enablers have done in the past decade to turn ostensibly life-saving medical transport into the for-profit multi-billion dollar, over-used and under-regulated sham that it is today, the decision to fight so hard for this location in Chicago seems uniquely arrogant and reckless. But if the inspector general finds that workers were indeed told to shut up about safety that's even worse, that would be haraam.