This has been a depressing year for people who believe in good government. Shutdowns! Sequestration! Health insurance Web sites that don't work!
So let us pause to honor a rare example of government making a sensible decision that will make life a little better for millions of people.
Passengers on U.S. commercial flights will be able to leave their personal electronic devices on, eventually with permission to read e-books, play games and watch videos on their devices throughout flights, the Federal Aviation Adminsitration has ruled. They can leave their phones on in airplane mode, with cellular reception turned off (this point is pretty much moot, as you generally can't get cell service in flight, anyway).
You're welcome, Alec Baldwin.
The FAA has applied vast amounts of time and technical expertise to figuring out whether this policy change could cause planes to start dropping from the sky. There is an easier way to reach the same conclusion:
On virtually every commercial flight today, there are at least one and often dozens of people who ignore the rules and leave their phones and other devices on. Some are trying to surreptitiously entertain themselves away from the flight attendant's glare. Others just forgot to turn it off. Either way, if there was any genuine threat to air safety from devices being on, we would have heard something -- anything -- about those risks manifesting themselves.
It is great that we take air safety so seriously. It is one of the true triumphs of modernity that millions of people fly on commercial airlines every day and virtually no one is injured or killed in the process. The risk of death over the last five years has been one in 45 million flights; for practical purposes, you're at no greater risk of death from flying across the country than you are from sitting in your living room for five hours.
It was a certain obsessiveness out of the air safety regulators that got us to that remarkable record. But just because safe air transport is a great thing doesn't mean we should keep inconvenient policies that don't actually make us any safer.
Or, as Toby Ziegler on the "West Wing" memorably put it: "We're flying in a Lockheed Eagle series L1011. It came off the line 20 months ago. It carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?"