Saturday, August 19, 2006

The risks of exploding laptops

Corey Dade of the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week ("Laptops draw scrutiny from airline-safety officials") that, irrespective of terrorist threats, the Federal Aviation Administration is considering what to do about the dire threat posed by laptop computers. As Dell’s battery recall this week demonstrated, the problem, it seems, is not so much that laptops may be used to disguise bombs, but that they are, in fact, bombs. Particularly those models with lithium-ion batteries. The WSJ reports six incidents over the past two years where laptop batteries have started smoldering or even caught fire (apparently even when the computer was off), leading to all sorts of airline havoc. Obviously, as has been reported elsewhere, laptop fires are not just a problem for airlines. Burned laps are not fun, and a number of lawsuits have been generated via spontaneously combusting laptops whose users took the name seriously. And your first question, when you hear about laptop fires on airplanes, might be the same that the FAA is currently considering—should we ban the things?

However, misanthrope that I am, my first question is what is the cost/benefit equation being considered here. (And, no, I’m not an MBA. An MBA asks only what the cost/benefit equation is for the company he or she works for. I’m generally far more parochial—what is the cost/benefit equation for me personally? But, in this case, I mean for society.) What are all these laptops doing on airplanes to begin with? Before we consider the benefits to banning laptops from airliners, we should consider the economic costs, and only by answering this question can we properly consider what these costs are. (This same issue should be addressed when considering restrictions on carry-on items as a result of terrorist threats, but I will leave that for a different post.)

From personal experience, I suspect that most people carrying a laptop in the passenger cabin of an airline never actually use it on the airplane. Most carry it because they need to use it later, at work or at home, and consider it too fragile to be put on checked luggage. (Though, actually, just banning laptops from the passenger cabin would seem to be a nonsensical solution, since there is no indication that laptops in cargo holds are less likely to burst into flames.) If this assumption is true (and I personally believe it is), in the “costs” column we need to consider all those damaged laptops and the cost they might present to the corporations and individuals owning these computers. (Somebody is going to have to pay for these things, and, even taking into account increased computer manufacturer profits, this is likely going to be a net loss to the economy.)

Other people actually use these things on planes, and we have to consider what they are doing with them. Personally, I mostly use them to look at German gay porn, in order to discourage the guy next to me from trying to share the joint armrest that separates our seats. (Of course, since I’m not actually gay or German, this occasionally horribly horribly backfires…) I also use my laptop to watch DVDs (Hogan’s Heroes box sets being one of my favorites—there’s nothing quite as fun as watching Hogan and the gang outwit those goofy Nazis while on a flight to Europe) and sometimes I play computer games to pass the time. Occasionally, like right now, I might show my complete disregard for the safety of my fellow humans and use my laptop on a plane merely to write a blog entry. On very very rare occasions, I might do something work-related.

Arguably, my real job is a social and economic negative, but most people actually have productive jobs, so the question is how much net gain does our society and economy get from busy worker bees using their laptops on airplanes, rather than, say, reading the DaVinci Code. But even aside from actual worker productivity, we should ask what value we place on the psychological benefit we get from watching DVDs of Hogan’s Heroes, playing Doom, or just discouraging Mr. Wheezy Fatboy from sharing our armrests while on long flights between Point A and Point B. It may be hard to nail down a social utility figure for this, but we could probably guess at it by considering how much people spend on personal DVD players and computer games particularly aimed at travelers. After all, if we were all collectively grumpier as a result of airline boredom, this would have a social effect and perhaps even an economic effect, if worker bees demanded more pay to compensate them for jobs that required lots of airline travel.

Against this, of course, we need to balance the benefits to banning laptops on airplanes. The first benefit, of course, is the risk averted and potential deaths prevented. This risk is not large, however. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. airlines alone handled approximately 11 million flights in 2005, and 10.9 million in 2004. If the WSJ counted 6 laptop burning incidents over the past 2 years, and we assume that this was only U.S.-based airlines (which it wasn't), this means that the risk of a laptop “incident” on any given flight is approximately 3.67 million to one. While no one has yet been harmed by a burning laptop on an airline, there is a possibility that a serious airline accident might occur between now and the time safer laptop batteries are developed, with some loss of life.

How much is a life worth? Putting a price on human life is always a dicey topic. It is complicated by the fact that some people’s lives are actually net drains on society. Huge herds of idiots, as described in previous posts—see the one about Congress in particular—insist on burning up precious oxygen, and even though oxygen is a renewable resource, it is not renewed nearly fast enough to justify their breathing it. My life, on the other hand, is infinitely valuable. But I’m guessing your's is not. Studies on regulation and the value of a human life vary, but they tend to average around $1.4 million, at least according to University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein.

So, should the FAA ban laptops on airlines? My guess is that they’d have to be a bunch of oxygen-wasting idiots to conclude we should.

1 comment:

M.D. Fatwa said...

Yes, yes, I get the irony of Hogan's Heroes being about a bunch of guys in a German prison camp.