March 23, 2023

Disruptions: Teaching the F.A.A. That Dogs Don’t Buckle Up

A sign on a Virgin America flight tells passengers to turn off electronic devices.Nick Bilton/The New York TimesA sign on a Virgin America flight tells passengers to turn off electronic devices.

If you’ve ever flown Virgin America, you will have seen the cartoonlike safety video that plays before the flight takes off.

In one scene, about a minute into the video, a man is shown sitting next to a large bull as he fumbles with his seat belt. A voice-over says, “For the 0.0001 percent of you who have never operated a seat belt before, it works like this.”

Few people know that the bull was originally a dog. But when the Federal Aviation Administration reviewed the video, one of the many concerns it had was that passengers would think dogs, which are sometimes on flights, had to wear seat belts — I’m not kidding here — so it made Virgin America change the dog to a bull, as bulls are, thankfully, not allowed on planes.

According to people who were involved in the making of the video, there were six months of meetings with the F.A.A. and changes to the video before it was finally approved.

This was government bureaucracy at its finest, and we may be in for another round of it.

Late last month, the F.A.A. announced that it was putting together an industry working group to study portable electronics usage on planes during takeoff and landing. (Don’t worry about chattering passengers: this is for e-readers and tablets, not for cellphones.)

But how long can these tests take? Given the six-month back-and-forth over a dog wearing a seat belt in a safety video, they might not be finished until the next millennium.

The F.A.A. has indicated the process will take at least a year. “The government-industry group, established through an aviation rulemaking committee, will be formally established this fall and will meet for six months,” it said in a statement.

But the airlines and electronics makers I have spoken with are willing to do whatever it takes to help the F.A.A. approve these changes in a timely manner.

Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, told me the company had done its own tests on its Kindle e-readers and Fire tablets to help hasten the changes. “We’ve done experiments,” he said. “We loaded a plane with Kindles.”

I asked what happened in the experiments. He looked at me as if I were asking the dumbest question he had ever heard. “Everybody landed,” he said. “It wasn’t a problem.”

Mr. Bezos said Amazon had submitted the results and was waiting to hear back from the F.A.A. But, he said, “They’ve got a process.”

Some airlines, including JetBlue and Virgin America, have notified the F.A.A. of their willingness to help, too.

But the current system of testing electronics devices will most likely have to change before gadgets can be used during takeoff and landing. The agency’s rules state that an airline must test each iteration of a device on each type of plane, without passengers, before it can be approved.

“With individual testing needed for every version of every electronic device out there, it’s practically impossible for an airline to take on the testing independently, so we’re pleased the F.A.A. is evaluating it and taking steps in that direction,” said Abby Lunardini, vice president of corporate communications at Virgin America. She said changing the rules would make flying more enjoyable for Virgin America passengers.

“We are keen to help in any way we can,” said Jamie Perry, director of product development at JetBlue. “The current situation is not working for customers, for airlines or for the F.A.A.”

As new e-readers and tablets are announced on an almost weekly basis, it seems the F.A.A. might have to accept truths like these: People are smart enough to know that dogs don’t wear seat belts, and reading devices like Kindles and iPads don’t affect an airplane’s avionics.

“This is a change that needs to happen,” Mr. Bezos said. “It’s time.”

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Workstation: An Ergonomics Challenge in New Electronic Devices

Things were much simpler 20 years ago, when employees worked mainly on desktop computers that could be adjusted for maximum comfort. Now people have added laptops, smartphones and tablets to their arsenals, and they’re using — or perhaps misusing — them at work, at home and in trains, planes, hotels and coffeehouses.

Visit any airport waiting area, said Alan Hedge, an ergonomics professor at Cornell, and you can see people using their laptops in awkward and contorted positions. Too much of this activity is bound to take a physical toll.

By positioning themselves improperly, people are at greater risk of eye strain, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, to name just a few ailments. Repetitive actions that lead to overuse of muscles and tendons can inflame them, causing pain in the hands, shoulders, neck and back.

Laptops are adding to these problems because “they do not meet any of the ergonomic requirements for a computer system,” Professor Hedge said. The keyboard and the screen are connected, so if you place the keyboard at the ideal position for typing, the screen won’t be at the best distance for viewing, he said. Docking stations that provide an extra keyboard or monitor can help solve this problem.

Another lurking danger is touch screens, Professor Hedge said. Keys that move up and down provide more of a cushion for the fingers, whereas the drumming of fingers against screens is harsher and can lead to soreness. For that reason, he said, a tablet should not be used heavily for typing.

And think of our poor thumbs, which have been pressed into a level of service they were never meant to provide. Thumbs are more vulnerable than fingers because they have two bones instead of three, Professor Hedge said.

“If you want to get injured, do a lot of texting,” he added (and that includes the chance that you will collide with something while walking or driving).

  Texting has led to an increase in a condition known as De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, where the tendons become so inflamed that it becomes painful to move your thumb, affecting your ability to hold things, Professor Hedge said.

These days, you can be texting your boss one minute and a friend the next. And this greater mingling of work and personal life is placing more stress on the body. It can also make it harder to pinpoint what is causing a new physical problem.

Adding a device or routine can tip the scales toward an injury, said Carol Stuart-Buttle of Stuart-Buttle Ergonomics in Philadelphia. She gave the example of a client who recently began typing on a propped-up tablet computer at home. That placed extra strain on her wrists so that typing at work — never a problem before — suddenly became painful.

To trace a pain’s origins, you may need to become a detective in your own life. As you seek to lessen or prevent pain, she said, look for any repetitive and sustained activity in all the devices you use.

Don’t discount psychological factors, she added. Mental stress can cause you to tense your muscles, aggravating any existing physical stress.

If you can, consult an ergonomics expert at your company to arrange the best possible setup for your devices at both work and home, along with a discussion of best practices. And notify your employer or consult a doctor if you experience pain or vision problems.

Ms. Stuart-Buttle says a common health issue is vision impairment stemming from a monitor being placed at the wrong distance from the eyes. And she often finds problems like tendinitis because people aren’t supporting their arms when they use a mouse, causing a tighter grip and increasing muscle tension.

IF you are hunched over while working, something is wrong, she said. Look for the things that are pulling you forward and fix them. Sit back in your chair, support your feet if needed and make sure your arms are relaxed as you type. Check that the screen is close enough so that you can see clearly without strain, enlarging the type size if necessary.

Be aware of these factors and try to approximate them as much as possible when you aren’t at your primary workstation.

As you work, “match the technology to the task you want to perform,” Professor Hedge said. “If what you’re doing is a lot of typing, you need a keyboard,” he added. “Don’t try to type ‘War and Peace’ with your thumbs.”

The simplest and most well-worn piece of advice is one that people too often forget to follow: take a break. Separating yourself from your machines gives your muscles, and your mind, a rest that they richly deserve.

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