Wanted: Champions Of Risk

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With the potential banning of laptops from airliner cabins under hot debate in Europe this week, I find myself once again recoiling at how people describe their thinking on this topic. Not to mention other risk-related issues. Notice I did not say “safety-related.”

I saw a quote go pixeling by in which the speaker said she was OK with the ban because “it keeps us safe.” Another suggested that laptops are OK in the cabin, if “they’re safe.” Well, they’re not safe. It’s quite simple. The batteries in them can and have blown up and any one of the more than 4 million passengers who board airliners daily can wig out and beat a seatmate senseless, using a laptop as a cudgel, one presumes. The former has happened. The only reason to believe that the latter won’t is because it hasn’t happened yet and United doesn’t issue laptops to its gate agents.

I don’t mean this discussion to be about banning laptops, because reasonable people can disagree about its efficacy and consequences. I mean it to be about the notion of thinking about safety or “being safe.” Safety is many things, but one of them is a self-delusion. You might, for example, say that TSA “has kept us safe” because there haven’t been any significant aviation-related terrorist events since 9/11 and vanishingly few outside of aviation. You could just as well credit TSA with preventing mad cows from stampeding through supermarkets and have a statement that’s just as credible. (Okay, so mad cows can’t really run, but you get the point.)

Whenever I see someone use the phrase “safe,” I can’t help but think I’m looking at someone incapable of other than binary thinking. It’s either safe or it isn’t. There’s no gray area; no sliding scale. But in aviation, what we’ve come to regard as risk awareness is one sliding-scale tradeoff after another. We’ll fly on a gusty day if the wind is down the runway, but reconsider with a 30-degree component. We might fly day IFR under 500-foot ceilings, but not at night. Maybe we’ll go in forecast ice if we know the tops are at 4000 feet and so on. There are so many variables in risk awareness that I’ve never been a fan of personal minimums, but that’s a blog for another day.

So, as should be obvious by now, I’m on a personal crusade to encourage people to use language that gets them thinking not about safety, but about ranked or relative risk. When you’ve reached a happy accommodation with whatever variables give you the night sweats, you can call that safety, although I’d call it acceptable risk.

I saw a nice quote that’s a good logical word test for this. It came from George Robotham, a mine safety expert: “If you want to work out what a safety displacement activity is, just take it out of the equation and see if it makes any difference. If there’s no difference then whatever that activity is, it’s probably a waste of time.” 

Apply that to the laptop issue or any other risk ranking and see how it works. Say, for instance, you want to remove any kind of airline pre-board screening. Would it make a difference? I daresay it would, so even though it’s not as effective as we might like, I think it’s effective enough. Stick it on something else, like a flight review. Would removing a flight review make a difference? My guess is yes, since it’s the only minimal training many of us get. Third Class medical? Go ahead and fall to the floor in convulsions of laughter.

Drone Jumping

While we’re talking about risk ranking, this week’s first skydive from a drone appears to be a good real-world example. For those of you who might ask why do this at all, it’s no different than any other kind of flight-related activity. Why fly balloons, have airshows or fly around the world in a two-person airplane in 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds?

Someone will ask me if I’d do a jump like that and the answer is no, but not for the reason you think. It was made from an altitude of 1000 feet and so the jumper—wisely—used a BASE rig, a fast-opening canopy intended for jumping off low-elevation towers, buildings and cliffs. Those things open—right now—and they kinda hurt. My neck and shoulders are stressed enough with regular skydives, thanks. (See the video at 1:11 to see the opening snatch. Ouch.)

Further to risk mitigation, they had the drone pick up the jumper atop a 500-foot tower. I’m going to guess they did that because a drone lifting a person intending to land with a parachute has a sort of dead man zone below 300 feet or so where, if something goes awry, you’d have no options. Moreover, the downdraft from a drone that big is surprisingly nasty and would likely mess up a canopy opening that you needed to have happen yesterday. Starting from the tower, the option is built in because people do BASE jumps from 500 feet all the time.

At first, I thought it would be better to have a harness or at least a stirrup, but I can see the sense of not doing that. The jumper didn’t have to hang from the trapeze very long and the last thing you want in something this edgy is an unforeseen entanglement.

And no, none of this is “safe.” It may have involved laptops, however.

Comments (22)

I think you're having obsessive compulsive Laptop Withdrawal Symptoms ... LWS? You've even got a QOTW on it now ... have you considered seeing a doctor?

OK ... let's examine the laptop issues using your sliding safety scale vs a binary safety scale.

The chances of a laptop breaking out in a Towering Inferno in flight are likely statistically small. And -- as you said last time -- if it's in the cabin, someone with a bottle of water is likely nearby. Worst case, you get singed and your seatmates get mad at you. Airliner lands safely with minimal fire damage.

Now lets examine the statistical likelihood that a massive number of people with malevolent intentions to harm us in a major way will bring one packed with C4 aboard from the places where they hang out. The agencies charged with keeping us safe are privy to information that you and I are NOT privy to; they've determined that the risk is too great so they want to ban them from certain embarkation points. If a C4 packed laptop gets onboard, airliner doesn't land at all ... it becomes PanAm 104. Risk is too great.

It's just like your gusty wind down the runway vs crosswind analogy. Risk is just too damn great.

A few years ago, I challenged an overzealous FAA engineer who was trying to wreak a new costly and unnecessary AD against all Piper airplanes because one dumb pilot mismanaged the fuel selector. I actually won that battle using the FAA's own safety matrix. I recommended a SAFO and that's exactly what happened. So your point is well taken. But YOU are taking it too far the other way. You're trying to convince us (or is it yourself) that everyone should be allowed to carry a laptop aboard and do whatever they want from wherever they want and ... the risk is acceptable. It isn't! Not in MY world.

AND ... no one is talking about how rude it'd be to try to balance your laptop on one of those new tiny seatback tray tables that are big enough ONLY for two cups of coffee. The environment in cattle class is already horrible -- hell, they're talking about making us fly standing up now! -- and you want unfettered use of laptops. Sorry ... between the safety issue and the rudeness issue, I ain't buying it.

Maybe they should have areas onboard ... like the last four rows in front of the rear lavs where people with laptops can pound away to their hearts content and leave the rest of the airplane for the rest of us ... kinda like the old days of smoking areas on board.

Finally, if some knucklehead wants to lift himself off of a 500 foot tall tower with a multi-copter so that he can let go of a rope and use a fast acting parachute to get his jollies ... more power to them. Only they become lawn darts ... not innocent bystanders. Acceptable risk.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 18, 2017 4:35 AM    Report this comment

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Scottie talks about "transparent aluminum." That, and judicious employment of good old unobtanium, MIGHT address the C4 issue. The battery issue can be solved by using ship power to drive battery-less electronic devices, AND deploying better hand-held fire extinguishers in the passenger cabin - a prudent idea, regardless of any terrorist threat.

Sequestering lithium-ion batteries below deck comprises an unnecessary and significant risk - with a total exposure that dwarfs terrorist carriage of explosives in today's security ecosystem.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 18, 2017 5:18 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you're a day late and a dollar short regarding societies acceptance of risk. That horse already left the barn a long time ago. Regarding anyone jumping out of anything that elevates one off the ground is concerned, you're all just plane crazy.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | May 18, 2017 5:29 AM    Report this comment

Exactly. Larry, Thomas, YARS, you are correct. Common sense vs aberrations.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 18, 2017 8:43 AM    Report this comment

Larry - yes it is true, the TSA has inadvertently exposed millions of cases of LWS. For the afflicted, the dilemma isn't terrorists bombs, it's "if I can't fondle my technology, what will I do with my hands?".

What's the difference between just jumping off the tower, and being carried over a few feet and letting go, insofar as the jump itself goes? I dare say there's no difference at all. So the incentive that drives our intrepid and daring troupe of Millennials toward these kinds of accomplishments must be something else. I wonder what it is?

Posted by: Ken Keen | May 18, 2017 9:26 AM    Report this comment

In Risk Management 101 textbooks, there are three basic ways to reduce risk: avoidance, transference and mitigation. Avoidance is obvioius; if you don't like the risk, stay home. Works for an individual, but not so great for the airlines that have to fly anyway. Transference means if you don't like the risk, send someone else on the plane and stay home. Again, not so great for the airlines. So, mitigation is pretty much all there is left. The problem there is how to mitigate one problem without creating another, possibly worse, situation. Like putting stacks of laptops in the cargo hold where one defective unit can spread undetected to the surroundings. Notice that the term "safe" is completely absent from this discussion, for the reasons you mention. There is no such thing as total safety.

The idea of safety is a recent concept borne of a society that refuses to accept any responsibiity for bad things that happen. It is equal parts a product of our litigious desire to sue the bastards and a government that feels obliged to do something, anything, whenever something bad happens. For over 40 years, OSHA and other government agencies have attempted to make our lives safer. In some respects, they have succeeded - airliners are incredibly reliable, if not safe. Modern cars protect their occupants far better than those of yesterday. But, much of this has only led society to demand even more "safety" in all things. The government also uses it as a club to force compliance ("We do these things to make you safe, trust us.").

Seasoned travelers mostly understand that airline travel carries a certain level of assumed risk. We are willing to tolerate some level of inconvenience to mitigate that risk. But, in the end, we have to accept the fact that staying home is the only true means of achieving total safety.

Posted by: John McNamee | May 18, 2017 11:57 AM    Report this comment

"Now lets examine the statistical likelihood that a massive number of people with malevolent intentions to harm us in a major way will bring [a laptop] packed with C4 aboard from the places where they hang out."

Those same people could just as easily pack external battery packs with C4, which to my knowledge are not banned. Or pack a camera with C4 (also not banned). Are we going to ban those items too? How far do we have to go before we remove all possible and likely means of bringing hidden explosives aboard an aircraft?

Sure, maybe there is a credible threat in using laptops as IEDs, but until we're at the obvious answer to my question above, there will always be some credible threat at some point. If we move to the answer, we may be "safe", but the terrorists have still won.

As for the personal minimums, I'll wait for that blog, because I have a few words to say on that, too (hint: I'm not a big fan of them).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 18, 2017 12:49 PM    Report this comment

'The idea of safety is a recent concept borne of a society that refuses to accept any responsibiity for bad things that happen.'

I'd probably say it is more akin to not allowing acceptance of the possibility of 'bad' things happening, wherever the responsibility may lie for the event. Fear will restrict that space every time.

The real problem, as Paul astutely observed, then becomes the establishment of a protective cover of self-delusion, and, when propelled by zealotry, seeking the truth (acceptance of risk awareness over illusion of safety, eg.) could even be rationalized to be claimed as a 'witch hunt' ...

but of course, who could be that deluded?

Posted by: Dave Miller | May 18, 2017 5:33 PM    Report this comment

So I'm slowly moving north from my winter HQ to my summer HQ ... currently in Dayton, OH. We walk into a major steakhouse and decide to eat in a booth near the bar so as to watch TV. I glance over at the bar and EVERYONE there is pecking away on iPhones, iPads, tablets and etc. And not all of 'em are millenials. More than half were middle aged. I kept thinking of my "LWS." :-))

The society has gone mad ... MAD, I say. I still have a flip phone because I refuse to become a slave to a machine. And, they're not even on unless I need to make a call OR by prior arrangement to receive one. I will resist as long as I can. I spend enough time on my laptop as it is.

And, as my wife points out ... imagine EMI. I have discovered that my laptop DOES emit RFI. So imagine an aluminum tube full of 'em whirring away.

Maybe they should establish laptop free flights for those who don't want to deal with the issues?

The only capitulation I will make is that I DO identify with being hooked on the technology. I rented a suite expecting no issues only to find that the WiFi didn't work in that particular room. Eight visits to the front desk later, I'm moving rooms. Geez ... life was a lot simpler when we had party lines down on the farm.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 18, 2017 8:46 PM    Report this comment

1) We jumped the proverbial shark on 9/12 when we made ourselves willing to accept the so-called Patriot Act.

Larry, for you:

2) I can't check my laptop. It's not that I would care so much, because I don't work on a plane that often. No, I can't check my laptop due to work policy. That laptop must stay with me, and not be checked. I also can't have it on public Wi-Fi, so work gives us "road warriors" / "traveling techies" cellular modems.

As a "privileged" user, I am subject to other restrictions as well. I have to change my password a minimum of 12 times per year, to a new, complex, 10 character (minimum) alphanumeric password. The password must be changed immediately after getting "home" from international travel, even if it was only a drive to Canada and back.

Posted by: Joe Servov | May 18, 2017 9:44 PM    Report this comment

Get some balls Larry. Just turn the damn things off, all of them. You will find out how little you will miss them. Life will go on without them. You will remember what true freedom was and is. Seriously Larry, try it. You will be astonished at what you find. Peace.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | May 19, 2017 4:08 AM    Report this comment

The banning of laptops (like taking off shoes and no full size shampoo) is ludicrous, not "safe".
All they are doing is making air travel for passengers more akin to being on a ConAir flight.
Cavity searches followed by intolerant cabin crews and armed air marshals.
We are no longer free people if we're treated as criminals.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | May 19, 2017 6:45 AM    Report this comment

Larry, if you ditched that flip in favor of a smartphone, you'd have a hotspot. Then you'd have broadband whenever you need it when the hotel's doesn't work. For me, that's frequently. But if you'd rather make the eight trips to the front desk for exercise, well, that's different.

As for the addiction, I turn mine off--silence it, really--all the time. We still have these personal choices; just make them. But when it's needed for work, it's needed. The new economy is a digital economy and anyone who thinks you can just disconnect permanently is in for a rude shock.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 19, 2017 8:22 AM    Report this comment

I was a hold-out on smart phones until I took a day trip via GA to Cape Cod and found the only way I could get internet access to check the weather and figure out how to get transportation back to the airport was through the very rudimentary internet access I had available on my flip-phone at the time. It turned out that all of the taxi companies stopped service after 7pm, so I had to find a bus to get to the airport. After that, I determined that if I was to continue making similar trips by plane, it would be in my best interest to have a smart phone where it didn't matter where I was or what time it was, that I'd still be able to get around the area and check the weather.

So my reasoning was for very practical matters. Could I have called information to figure out how to get back to the airport? I suppose. And could I have called flight service for the weather? Sure, if I wanted to go back to having to visualize where all the weather was instead of just seeing it. But why intentionally ignore a resource available to me and make things more difficult than they need be. It's like the IFR pilot who refuses to use the autopilot even when they're clearly overwhelmed and behind the airplane.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 19, 2017 9:40 AM    Report this comment

You don't need anything when you're in the wilderness. Believe me, you'd be surprised what you can do without.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | May 19, 2017 11:11 AM    Report this comment

"I still have a flip phone because I refuse to become a slave to a machine. And, they're not even on unless I need to make a call OR by prior arrangement to receive one."

Dad, is that you?

If you want to wear the mantle of righteous indignation, go right ahead.

But, leave the damn phone on.

I can tell you from personal experience what a pain in the landing gear it is when you can't get a hold of a parent to let them know they just left something behind, the appointment changed, there's a family emegency, etc., because they take perverse pleasure in the pseudo-superior thinking of self-imposed digital exile.

The only things missing from your post were a "harumph!" and a "get off my lawn!"

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | May 19, 2017 12:40 PM    Report this comment

I suppose my preference to round gauges with a portable iPad to fly day VFR might be comparable to Larry's Lewis Black moment of frustration. People are always jaw-slackened that I can...'safely'... enjoy 'Flight Without Glass.' Maybe another new acronym...

As an aside, does anyone else think that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark saw today's society not just from a space/human/tech perspective, but also, didn't everybody in the movie want to touch, be near and figure out the black monolith all the time?

Maybe yours is another color, but mine is black and emits energy and entices hypnosis just like the huge, strange one did for everyone from long ago...

Yeah, we're digital now, but it's still really nice to get away from the monolith occasionally and hear the elk breathing behind you at camp.

Posted by: Dave Miller | May 19, 2017 2:39 PM    Report this comment

A man without an iphone is like a woman without tatas.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 19, 2017 3:08 PM    Report this comment

"but it's still really nice to get away from the monolith occasionally and hear the elk breathing behind you at camp."

Don't be silly. I've got an app that does that. And if I want, I can change it to a bear, a rhino or a meerkat. There's also a ring tone that has Larry screaming something about getting off his lawn.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 19, 2017 3:09 PM    Report this comment

As I've been saying for decades now, we are NOT safe. We were NEVER safe. We will never be safe. Nothing government could do, or WOULD do, would ever MAKE us safe.

Government will happily destroy our freedoms in order for the dimwitted to FEEL safe, and since the dimwitted obviously outnumber the rest of us, there's really nothing the rest of us can do but watch our country slide ever further into totalitarianism "for our own good". So now we have TSA gate-rape, and luggage theft, and civil asset forfeiture, and rogue cops on missions to interdict drugs in which they inadvertently storm the wrong house and kill perfectly innocent people in their sleep.

Yep, I prefer steam gauges, tailwheel aircraft, situational awareness, personal responsibility, and the rights that our Bill of Rights were intended to protect, but obviously didn't.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | May 20, 2017 2:31 PM    Report this comment

Daniel Kahneman,the psychologist whose research originated the field of behavioral economics, and winner of the Nobel Prize for originating "prospect theory" notes that humans are not designed to understand the world statistically. Rather we are designed to understand the world 'heuristically", which means that we are easily swayed and fooled by how an argument is conceptually framed, how we have been "primed" by preceding comments, even if they are unconscious to us.
This has resulted in overestimating all sorts of dangers, such as from international terrorism, airplane crashes, and other rare events, which nonetheless seem horrific.
I suggest that readers look up Dan Kahneman youtube videos, and/or read his book "Thinking Fast and Slow"

Posted by: Richard Katz | May 21, 2017 7:57 AM    Report this comment


Posted by: Richard Katz | May 21, 2017 7:59 AM    Report this comment

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