Up in the Air

Gerry Purdy hears it every time he flies: "Please turn off all portable electronic devices until the flight crew indicates it is safe to use them."

Purdy, the CEO of PortableLife.com in Cupertino, Calif., a Web portal for mobile-device users, just isn't too sure about whether there's a big danger or just a whiff of scam in the air.

In a recent open column on his website aimed at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Purdy urged the government agency to drop the ban on shutting down portable computers during takeoff. "It doesn't appear to me that there is anything that a portable computer is doing that could affect the navigation of the airplane," Purdy says. "Laptops don't emit radio transmissions unless someone plugs in a wireless modem, and every manufacture of laptops builds significant shielding into its product so that it generates little noise or electromagnetic radiation."

The FAA's complete ban on transmission devices (such as cell phones and modems) and limited use of electronics stems from a 1996 test run by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) which showed that some toys and gizmos caused interference with cockpit flight instruments. The FAA says that as long as there might be even the slightest possibility of such trouble the current procedure and ban will stand.

In testimony before Congress last July, Thomas McSweeny, the FAA's associate adminstrator for regulation and certification, gave this testimony about portable electronic devices: "The findings of the [RTCA] studies indicated that the probability of interference to installed aircraft systems from PEDs (portable electronic devices) was low. However, the possibility of interference to aircraft navigation and information systems during critical phases of flight should be viewed as potentially hazardous and an unacceptable risk for aircraft involved in passenger operations." The potential for personal injury to passengers is the FAA's "paramount consideration," McSweeny added.

Purdy says he's all for safety, but counters that the airlines themselves might have an interest in keeping the status quo. Much like movie theaters that ban outside food so that they can sell $5 buckets of popcorn and $2 candy bars, airlines can sell phone service to passengers if they have a starving audience.

Curiously, section 91.21 of the Federal Aviation Regulations provides for a few PED exceptions, and the following items can be used during takeoff and landing: voice recorders, hearing aids, heart pacemakers (thank goodness) and electric shavers. So the bad news is that the FAA is still requiring you to turn off your laptop for a few minutes. But fortunately you can use those moments to squeeze in a quick shave.

Fear of Flying

The following list of flight truths is adapted from an item in Australian Aviation magazine.

  1. Every takeoff is optional. Every landing is mandatory.
  2. Flying isn't dangerous. Crashing is what's dangerous.
  3. It's always better to be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here.
  4. The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire.
  5. The propeller is just a big fan in front of the plane used to keep the pilot cool. When it stops, you can actually watch the pilot start sweating.
  6. A "good" landing is one from which you can walk away. A "great" landing is one after which they can use the plane again.
  7. The probability of survival is inversely proportional to the angle of arrival. Large angle of arrival, small pprobability of survival and vice versa.
  8. There are three simple rules for making a smooth landing. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
  9. You start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.

This story, "Up in the Air " was originally published by CIO.

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