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28 February 2011

Will your pilot use an iPad in the cockpit?

For most consumers, the personal electronics revolution of the past 20 years has meant massive changes in the kinds of affordable technology that we use at home, at work, or back in the passenger cabin. In the front of the aircraft, change doesn't happen very quickly. Innovations like GPS or even digital displays often take a slow and winding path over several years before the FAA would approve them for use in the cockpit.

It seems that this process has been sped up considerably in the case of the iPad. Less than a year after the iPad was initially offered to the general public, the FAA has allowed air charter company Executive Jet Management, which is a subsidiary of Warren Buffet's NetJets company, to use Apple’s iPad, combined with a specific software application, as an approved alternative to paper charts. Not only has this electronic device been approved for aviation use, it has been approved without any major design changes. Other likely early adopters would include companies providing Private Jet Charter services.

According to February 2011 Wired magazine article, the FAA approval process included demonstrating that an iPad could endure a rapid decompression from a simulated altitude of 51,000 feet and still provide critical navigation information. Prior to approval, Executive Jet Management also developed procedures for dealing with system or software crashes and other situations that are described in detail in FAA Advisory Circular 120-76A, which deals with requirements for electronic flight bags.

At present, this means that only those few passengers who fly in sleek corporate jets may see their pilot carrying an even sleeker iPad rather than a bulky case full of paper charts, but that may change soon. Rather than carting around suitcase-sized flight bag stuffed with dozens of charts and other reference materials, your pilot will be able to add to as many materials as he or she may need for the safe conduct of your flight. After all, no matter how many electronic documents are in an iPad, the weight doesn't change.

This is another innovation that may mean improved safety at all levels of aviation. While the iPad has been popular with pilots since its introduction last year, until now it had not been approved for use by the FAA either as a replacement for traditional paper charts or as a replacement for currently approved, but much more expensive, electronic flight bags. While the iPad can be purchased for several hundred dollars, most electronic flight bags cost at least several thousand dollars.

Coming soon to a major airline near you?
This first FAA approval for using the iPad in the cockpit gives airlines the opportunity to do the same. Currently, Alaska Airlines has about 100 pilots evaluating the iPad, and a spokesperson for Jeppesen; the Boeing-owned subsidiary that provides aeronautical charting and navigation services, including the TC Mobile software application in the recently approved iPad system; claims that several air carriers are interested in using the system as well.

Check it out for yourself
This is one of those rare situations where the average passenger, at least those who own iPads, can easily use and evaluate the same FAA approved equipment that a pilot can use. The TC Mobile application is free, and can be found through your iTunes app or online at the iTunes store. While the app is free and has free demonstration charts, downloading and using real aeronautical charts will cost you.

Other iPad Articles at
Airline travel issues and the iPad
TSA Says you can keep your iPad, Kindle, or netbook in your bag

Full disclosure: Neither the author or was compensated for this article by Boeing, Executive Jet Management, NetJets, Jeppesen, Apple, or by any other company or individual. The author also admits that he has the app on his iPad and thinks it looks really cool.

23 February 2011

Multiple Alleged Thefts by TSA Employees

Earlier this month, three New York area TSA employees were arrested in two separate incidents after being accused of stealing up to about $70,000 from airline passengers.

According to a statement by the US Attorney's Office in New Jersey, Michael Arato, a supervisor at Newark Liberty Airport, admitted in federal court that he accepted bribes and kickbacks from a coworker who stole money during security screenings at his checkpoint.

Prosecutors allege that Arato permitted a worker under his supervision to steal $10,000 to $30,000 in cash from travelers' bags over a 13 month month period, and that the subordinate shared some of the stolen money with Arato. Between September 13 and October 5, 2010, video surveillance captured Arato allegedly accepting approximately $3,100 in bribes. In addition to admitting that he took bribes related to his coworker’s theft, Arato also admitted that he regularly stole from passengers traveling through his checkpoint.

According to the Queens, NY District Attorney's office, two TSA employees at JFK airport, Davon Webb and Couman Perad, were arrested after being accused of stealing about $40,000 from apassenger's checked bag. The investigation began on January 30th of this year after another TSA agent contacted police after suspecting that the two agents had taken money. Coumar allegedly noticed cash after X-raying a passenger's bag. Webb allegedly marked it with tape, and later Coumar allegedly removed $40,000 from the bag. The bag had actually contained about $170,000. Police later found $16,000 in Webb's home and $23,980 in Coumar's home (he allegedly spent $20 on food).

Other TSA Thefts
This is not the first time that TSA employees have been accused of stealing from passengers. According to Bloomberg, TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis stated that between 2008 and 2010, 12 TSA officers lost their jobs due to thefts at security points or from checked baggage.

How to Protect Your Cash at the Airport
When you carry cash with you on an airline trip, you should take some very basic steps to keep from becoming a victim of theft.
  • Avoid traveling with large amounts of cash.

  • If you have to take cash, keep it in a carry on bag

  • Keep your baggage and belongings in sight when passing through a security checkpoint

  • If your carry on baggage must be searched, insist on keeping your bag in sight

  • If asked about the contents of your baggage by a TSA agent or other responsible authority, tell the truth

  • If you suspect that you have been a victim of theft, contact an airport police officer or other law enforcement representative immediately (note that TSA agents are not law enforcement agents)

  • If you suspect that a TSA screener or other screening area employee has stolen your property, contact a supervisor
Also, keep in mind while it is legal to travel domestically with large amounts of cash, when you are entering the US (with the US as your destination or in transit to another country), you have to declare currency, endorsed personal checks , travelers checks, gold coins, securities or stocks in bearer form that are valued at $10,000 or more. Failure to do so can result in seizure by US Customs agents. When leaving the US with large amounts of currency, gold, or other valuables, you should review the customs requirements of your destination country.

For more baggage tips, visit's Baggage Basics page.

17 February 2011

Recent plane crashes in Honduras and Ireland

In the past week, there have been two recent fatal plane crashes involving airline passengers.

14 February 2011; Central American Airways; Let 410; HR-AUQ; near Cerro de Hula, Honduras: The aircraft was on a domestic flight from San Pedro Sula to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and crashed into a forest while en route to its destination. Both crew members and all 12 passengers were killed.

The Let 410 is a twin turboprop aircraft model that had over 1100 deliveries starting in 1969. Initially, the aircraft were used almost exclusively by the former Soviet Union and by numerous countries in eastern Europe. There are several hundred still in service, some as commercial passenger airliners, though none are used in airline service in North America

While this airliner accident resulted in fatalities, it is not counted as a fatal event as defined by

10 February 2011; Manx2 Swearingen Metro III; Flight 7100; Cork, Ireland: The aircraft was on a scheduled international flight from Belfast, Northern Ireland to Cork, Ireland when it crashed near the destination airport. There were low visibility conditions at the time of the crash. On the crew's third landing attempt, the aircraft crashed adjacent to a taxiway, came to rest upside down, and caught fire. Both crew members and four of the ten passengers were killed.

These two crashes represent the third and fourth airliner crashes with passengers deaths in 2011. By comparison, in 2010, the fourth fatal passenger crash did not occur until the middle of May.

Photos: Processo, Sky News

09 February 2011

Does the TSA unfairly discriminate against private sector competitors?

In a memo released late last month, TSA administrator John Pistole decided to freeze a program that had allowed airports to use private contractors in place of TSA personnel to handle passenger screening duties at airports. The Screening Partnership Program, which had been in place at 16 airports, had several additional airports applying to the program at the time that Pistole made his decision.

This decision has been lauded and criticized by different airline security stakeholders. According to a report in, two unions vying to represent about 40,000 TSA screeners were in favor of the decision, while US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica, who is in favor of privatization, stated that he planned to launch an investigation into the decision.

To the average air traveler, this decision does not change their airport experience, and according to the General Accounting Office, there is no real difference between the performance of the private companies and TSA when it comes to screening. Why then would something like this be of any concern to the flying public? Before answering that question, it may help to have a bit of background information about this program.

Quick overveiw of the Screening Partnership Program
The Screening Partnership Program, which was created by the TSA because it was required to by federal law, allowed airports to use private contractors to provide the kinds of screening services normally provided by the TSA. All of this would be under federal oversight, with a TSA security representative ensuring that the contractor meets the appropriate airports security standards.

Why did TSA director Pistole freeze the program?
Prior to last month's announcement by Pistole, there was no real public debate or any prior significant statement about any potential change in the program. Pistole's statement also didn't provided any hint of who within TSA leadership besides Pistole was involved in the decision. The brief statement implied that the freeze had nothing to do with performance or security screening problems at any of the 16 airports currently using the program, and also stated that airports currently using private contractors could continue to do so. The following is Pistole's full statement that was released by the TSA on January 28, 2011:

Shortly after beginning as TSA Administrator, I directed a full review of TSA policies with the goal of helping the agency evolve into a more agile, high-performing organization that can meet the security threats of today and the future. As part of that review, I examined the contractor screening program and decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports as I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time. The airports that currently use contractor screening will continue to be regulated by TSA and required to meet our high security standards.

Reading between the lines, there are two implications in this statement. First, the 16 airports currently using private contractors are currently meeting TSA's security standards. The second implication is that allowing other airports to privatize the TSA's screening function would somehow keep the TSA from improving its performance and make it less able to respond to current and future threats.

Do these reasons make sense?
There may be a substantial amount of thought and analysis that went into Pistole's decision, but the TSA has not made that part of their decision process public. Outsiders, including airport operators and the flying public are forced to evaluate this decision based on TSA's public statements and their actions.

Based on Pistole's public statements, and on the fact that the TSA is allowing the the current contractors to remain, it appears as though all the private companies involved in the Screening Partnership Program are meeting all the relevant security and screening requirements, implying that expanding the program would have no negative effects on security. Based on this admittedly scant evidence, it seems that Pistole is concerned that having more airports in this program would somehow compromise security at one or more of the airports where the TSA does the security screening.

In a recent TSA blog post from February 7th, the TSA stated that "TSA is still accepting applications, but unless a clear and substantial advantage to do so emerges in the future, the requests will not be approved." The announcement of January 28 and the blog post from February 7 imply that the TSA is arguing the following:
  • The current airports participating in the Screening Partnership Program are as effective as airports that use TSA personnel and can continue to stay in the program

  • Having additional airports in the Screening Partnership Program will prevent the rest of the TSA from evolving into a more effective organization

  • New airports can enter the Screening Partnership Program only if they can demonstrate that they have substantial advantages over the TSA

  • The 16 airports currently in the program don't have to demonstrate that they have substantial advantages over the TSA

Taken together, the TSA's statements don't clearly answer the question of whether the decision makes sense, because TSA has simply not provided enough information about the factors that went into its decision, or what factors would lead the TSA to accept or reject any new applications. More disturbing, some of TSA's statements imply that it is actively discriminating against private contractors, specifically the statement that new airports will be approved for the program only if they can demonstrate that they have substantial advantages over the TSA.

This implies that the TSA's leadership believes one of two things, either their procedures and requirements are adequate, but private competitors have a responsibility to show an extra level of competence; or that current TSA procedures and requirements are not adequate and private contractors need to be better than the TSA in order to provide an adequate level of security. In other words, TSA's statements imply that it is acceptable for their leadership to allow separate and unequal standards, with one set of standards for its own employees, and a higher one for potential private competitors.

It may be harsh to use words like discrimination and phrases like separate and unequal when describing the logic behind TSA's recent decisions on private sector alternatives to passenger screening, but given their public statements, it may be appropriate to do so.