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OPINION: TSA, leave in-flight GPS screens alone

Allan Ripp operates a press relations firm in New York City.


Of all the indignities hurled at travelers in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day takedown of Northwest Flight 253, none has been more distressing than the TSA's directive that airlines disable their global positioning systems.

Immediately after the incident, the TSA ordered a shut- down of the in-flight navigation systems passengers can follow, and has since left the decision to the discretion of individual airlines. Many pilots have continued the order on the thinking that jihadists who couldn't plot their whereabouts in the sky would refrain from igniting themselves over a specific target, like Manhattan - never mind that they still have access to an onboard geo-locator, otherwise known as a window.

Air travelers have been subjected to multiple insults in the name of security: the full-body scan, the random strip and luggage search, the ban on liquids, and the removal of one's shoes while trying to handicap which security line will move fastest. But to this passenger, a longtime phobic flier, nixing the in-flight map is the ultimate submission to terror.

For most travelers, the GPS map is a minor curiosity during a long flight. Not for me. I am transfixed by the map, and the green line tracing the arc of our trip, especially across long stretches of ocean. As long as the plane's blinking facsimile is visible and crawling along, I believe, we won't fall from the sky.

I've had a decades-long dread of flying. I can't read, watch a movie, eat a meal, listen to music, talk or even think straight while up in the air. Sometimes, if the flight is perfectly smooth, I can stare out the window marveling at the miracle of aviation - until the next set of bumps hits and I'm back fidgeting and losing composure.

But since the advent of the seat-back GPS, I finally have a place to channel my anxiety. While everyone else is engrossed in trivial activities, I'm fixated on the map, checking the aircraft's flight speed and altitude, noting ground coordinates as the satellite view changes from screen to screen, watching for the green line to inch closer to our destination. It's as if I'm flying the plane - I've convinced myself that if I turn my attention from the map for too many seconds, the aircraft might go off course, or break in half.

Not that emergencies don't occur. On a flight from Chicago, the plane's cursor-like icon disappeared from the screen and I panicked. Did we vanish from radar? Were we going down? After a few minutes the icon reappeared - a software glitch, a flight attendant told me - but I remained uneasy the rest of the trip, wondering if air traffic controllers would guide us home.

On a flight to New York from San Francisco, I watched warily as the land speed of our Airbus 320 approached 700 miles per hour, and then continued into Chuck Yeager territory: 710, 720, 740 mph! Were the pilots aware we'd broken through Mach 1? Would the plane start to disintegrate?

The man next to me happened to be an off-duty pilot. He calmly told me that the posted GPS speeds were notoriously inaccurate and there was no way we'd gone supersonic. The jet stream was just giving the aircraft a nice lift and would get us home a little early. And yet, even after our cruising speed fell back to 550 mph, I couldn't shake the sense that the pilots had pushed the plane beyond its limits and that a catastrophic metal fatigue failure was imminent.

Still, most of the time I rely on the map as an in-flight hypnotherapist to keep my fears in check. The fact that the airplane icon is so oversized - its wingspan larger than Cleveland - is an added relaxant. Hey, we're not just some aluminum canister up here.

In fact, the map's lack of pinpoint precision only makes the TSA's decision more ill-conceived, "security theater" with no real benefit. The odds that a terrorist could plot the exact strategic moment to ignite an incendiary device based on the generalized coordinates of some landmark five or six miles below seem, well, sky high.

And so, federal watchdogs: As you devise new rules for keeping air travel terror-free, take your eyes off the GPS maps. If you think a holy warrior is dangerous cargo, wait until you see this white-knuckle flier enter a dark bank of storm clouds without a real-time video map and a little green line to keep him centered in his seat.


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