Recent news in aviation safety – updated

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Dec 272011

This upcoming week’s Quicklinks was starting to have quite a few examples related to aviation safety, so I thought I’d distill them into one post. There is likely universal agreement: we want to be able to travel through the air safely. There is not, however, agreement on what sort of public policy is necessary to ensure such an outcome.

Even regarding the same safety issues there’s not consensus. For example, passengers are forbidden from using certain portable electronics during takeoffs and landings for fear they’d cause electromagnetic interference that could disable the plane’s instruments. Unfortunately, whether that is a valid concern or a modern old wives’ tale is still subject to debate. This article in the New York Times Bits blog ran some tests on various objects and noted that they did not seem to emit interference that would approach dangerous levels, even in the aggregate. On the other hand, it’s worth reading this recent article from’s Ask the Pilot columnist Patrick Smith as a counterpoint. He notes that even a minor blip in airplane instrument functionality could be risky, but moreover, the other reason to ban such devices during these periods is because they can become dangerous projectiles in case of emergency. Sure, he observes, so can books, which aren’t banned, but if one is going to draw a line somewhere this could be a reasonable place.

The other links relate to the security theater surrounding airport operations. I won’t categorize this post as “commentary” despite the preceding pejoratives because I am sure at some point(s) in the future I will use even more excoriating language to indict the shameful state of affairs that is the TSA than this here. Instead I will point to this Vanity Fair interview of security expert Bruce Schneier to describe the problem. And also link to this story about the TSA confiscating a passenger’s cupcake because the frosting was “too gel-like” and let you draw your own conclusions.

Update 12/29/11: I missed an article I’d meant to link when I wrote this. “Aviation security expert: TSA wasted $56B on junk security,” Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing, Dec. 7, 2011.