Disregard anything said by the International Air Transport Association

Posted: June 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Statistics | No Comments »

Today I read the least consequential and most pointless news article in the history of journalism: Is It Really Safe to Use a Cellphone on a Plane?. The article enumerates some recent findings of the International Air Transport Association, concerning the danger in use of personal electronic devices on airplanes (not cellphones specifically). The agency concludes that 75 events over the years 2003 – 2009 have possibly been linked to these devices. It then provides some scary quotes about the use of personal electronic devices. My favorite was: “A clock spun backwards and a GPS in cabin read incorrectly while two laptops were being used nearby.” Sounds like a voiceover clip from a crappy B movie.

There are approximately 32,000 flights over the US every day, which totals 81,760,000 over the course of the study. 75 incidents implies an incident rate of .0001%. Which is more likely: instruments working slightly less than 99.9999% of the time, or cell phones causing instruments to break, but only .0001% of the time?

So who wrote this journalistic gem? ABC journalists Brian Ross @brianross (who usually produces very high quality work) and Avni Patel. ABC’s own expert John Nance explains, “If an airplane is properly hardened, in terms of the sheathing of the electronics, there’s no way interference can occur.” If your own expert thinks the report is wrong, why report on it? Is this really the only story they could come up with? How about reporting on something of value, rather than going for shock value and misleading headlines? In the words of my parents, “I’m not upset, just disappointed.” I’d love to get my hands on this report, but apparently its a “confidential industry study,” which I believe is code for “embarrassing and wrong.”

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