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.