Saturday, June 11, 2011

Fear of Unknown and Almighty $ = Turn off Your Phone After Boarding

(H/T Instapundit)

Every time I fly, listening to the flight attendant's sincere directions containing the simplistic assertion that personal electronic devices (PEDs) may interfere with aircraft operations and directives that I must turn off my electronic devices ALMOST makes me forget I had just played a bit role in the latest episode of Security Theater. There is an ABC News piece with the headline "Is It Really Safe to Use a Cellphone on a Plane?" that attempts to build a mountain, not out of a molehill, but from a couple of grains of sand.

I have DECADES of avionics systems laboratory and flight test experience, including conceiving, developing, and executing System and Subsystem EMI, ALT, HALT, Functional and Failure Mode Effects Test procedures. IMHO, this issue is about lawyers, liability law and the inherent imperfection and fallibility of ANY man-made device, and the certainty of failure given enough time. From this perspective, I have multiple beefs with both the article and many of the comments (44 of them at the time I read the article).

1. All 'incidents' presented are anecdotes about occurrences in either uncontrolled or unrealistic/simulated  environments. There is NO evidence presented as to ‘root cause’ nor even enough evidence to dismiss the possibility that any might have been random events. Certainly the almost immeasurably small number of possible incidents identified ("75 separate incidents of possible electronic interference") globally over a 6 year period, is for all practical purposes statistically insignificant,

2. Events presented may or may not have had something to do with operation of the personal electronics devices, but even if they did, they still not point towards root cause. The problem could be with the electronic devices OR aircraft systems, as the possible failure modes for either, while not infinite ARE inestimable.

3. Airframe manufacturers and airlines have a vested interest in pointing at the PEDs as the ‘problem’. It prevents them from having to deal with additional design requirements, testing and the associated costs or having to improve designs in existence for operating in the modern environment and servicing the 21st century public.

4. Funny that the article suggests that ‘older’ planes may be more of a problem. The author should bum a ride in the back of GE’s engine test bed. It is one of the oldest 747s still flying, and during test missions you will find the back end filled to the max with rows and rows of equipment racks with panels off running at full tilt, ad hoc instrumentation data lines, laptops up and running, and guys on cell phones and radios talking to the data download facility, and the last I heard (from THE guy who would know) they’ve never had a problem.

5. RE: Commenter ‘spsooz’s “Most of us aren't impressed with the common sense of the traveling public, nor do we appreciate the hostile reactions we get when we are just doing our jobs.”

That’s alright 'spsooz'. While I can’t speak for ‘most of us’ on the other side, I stopped being impressed with cabin crew performance right after they stopped turning into Kiwis and started turning into crones (and I’m not talking about ‘age’ here). It’s HOW one does their job that makes the difference, and today the traveling public gets to see a broad range of what gets defined as ‘professionalism’.

"If an airplane is properly hardened, in terms of the sheathing of the electronics, there's no way interference can occur."
The best quote in the article comes from ABC's aviation expert (who unlike most in the news game actually has experience on the subject beyond observing real experts):
There are still doubters, including ABC News's own aviation expert, John Nance.

"There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there, but it's not evidence at all," said Nance, a former Air Force and commercial pilot. "It's pilots, like myself, who thought they saw something but they couldn't pin it to anything in particular. And those stories are not rampant enough, considering 32,000 flights a day over the U.S., to be convincing."
Nance thinks there are alternate explanations for the events. "If an airplane is properly hardened, in terms of the sheathing of the electronics, there's no way interference can occur."
After this passage comes a "yes, but" follow-on from Boeing's experts that provides another but not necessarily contradictory POV. Nance's last statement is irrefutable.

First Rule of Problem Solving: Is it My Problem?
It makes perfect sense to require PEDs to be turned off during critical flight phases, but stop blaming the PEDs in advance. This tactic allows the airline and airframe manufacturers to continue to assert a defacto  loophole from being held liable and allows them to continue to not deal with a possible problem that should be their responsibility.  Any ‘incompatibility’ can be due just as easily to insufficient or unfortunate aircraft systems design, installation or maintenance as anything else. IMHO, the problem should be considered to be on the ‘airplane side’ since the purpose of the plane and airline is to serve the 21st Century travelling public vs. the other way around.

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