Are external disk drives a threat to flight safety?

By | October 15th, 2007

Thanks to 9/11, we know what can bring down a plane. Box cutters and knives. Baby formula and hairspray, too. And nailclippers. Oh, no, wait — you can carry those onboard now. But just don’t pack an external hard disk drive.

Reader Drew Tipton witnessed the following event on a Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles last week. “The person across the aisle from me was using a hard drive,” he says. “The flight attendant noticed it, confiscated it, and gave it to the sky marshal on board.”

Indeed, Delta now lists external hard drives as verboten. It says the can’t be used “for safety reasons” on its flights, but doesn’t elaborate.

I asked my Transportation Security Administration contact if peripherals were on some kind of government list. Negative. Not only that, but the agency has no record of a hard drive being confiscated on a flight between Los Angeles and Atlanta on that day.

I also asked Delta for its side of the story. It has not responded.

I have seen no credible evidence that peripheral devices such as hard drives, pen drives or memory sticks can crash a plane.

But here’s what I have seen a lot more of recently. Flight attendants used to walk up and down the aisles to ask if you needed anything to make your flight more comfortable. Those were the good old days. Now they patrol the planes in search of contraband, like noise-canceling headsets, PDAs and computer peripherals.

And some — not all, but some — really seem to take pleasure in either confiscating these “dangerous” devices or forcing you to turn them off. Or even calling the cops on you in extreme cases like Tipton’s.

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Personally, I think it’s time for a little common sense at 36,000 feet. No external hard drive has ever brought a plane down. Same goes for headsets, iPods and smartphones.

Free the electronics. Now.