So, the FCC has announced it will consider revising its position on the use of cellular phones on U.S. airline flights, potentially clearing the way for onboard calling.
The first thing everybody asks about is safety. Over the years, there has been anecdotal evidence of cellular phones interfering with cockpit equipment, but most of these reports were several years ago, involving older aircraft, and nothing could ever be proven. I don’t feel that things would be moving in this direction if the regulators didn’t feel it was safe.
Ultimately, however, this becomes a social, not a technological issue. In other words, how do passengers feel about being confined in a cabin with dozens of other people all chatting away simultaneously? The idea introduces yet another stress factor into the air travel experience—an experience that for many is stressful enough already.
It’s ironic, because to me, when I fly as a passenger, it’s often the airplane cabin that provides the quietest and most relaxing part of the journey. Airport terminals in the United States are such noisy places; the airplane itself can be a welcome relief. Sure, there's engine and wind noise, but the ambient sounds of flying aren't remotely as disturbing as the sounds of somebody sitting next to you in the throes of an overheated phone conversation. There's simply no comparison.
But what I think doesn’t matter. Like it or not, we are moving towards some form of onboard cell phone use. Once the approval goes through, it will be up to individual carriers as to when and how they’ll allow it. One idea would be sequestering those passengers who wish to use mobile phones into a certain section of aircraft—an idea akin to the old smoking/non-smoking sections that used to be common. The chatterers can stay in their own area and leave the rest of us alone. Or, perhaps you could have a designated zone of the plane that a passenger can move to in order to place a call—a sort of airborne phone booth.
Keep in mind that the proposal is just that—a proposal. For now, the phone ban remains in place, and passengers are obliged to follow the rules. Even if the ban is lifted, technological challenges remain. As it stands, cellular phones simply will not work at higher altitudes in an airplane cabin. One solution is the installation of a small cell-signal aggregator that acts as a sort of miniature cell tower right there on the plane. It then re-directs your call to the ground via radio or satellite. (It also automatically de-powers the transmission strength of your phone, further reducing the likelihood of interference with cockpit equipment.)
Thus, for onboard calling can become a reality will require an expensive, industry-wide investment in onboard technology.
Which, of course, brings us to the next conversation—about how that cost will be passed along to flyers. Will passengers be asked to pay yet another fee for a seat in the airplane’s “quiet zone?”
This debate will be contentious, but if you’ll allow me to play devil’s advocate for a minute, we can hardly blame carriers for seeking out additional revenue streams with fares as inexpensive as they are. Most people fail to realize that the average airfare in 2013 is about half of what it was three decades ago—and that’s after factoring in the various add-on fees that have become so popular. The average fare has fallen 18 percent since 2000 alone, despite huge increases in the cost of jet fuel.
On the other hand, the a la carte pricing model leaves people feeling increasingly nickel-and-dimed, and every new fee cranks up the public’s anti-airline resentment that much higher.
We’ll see how it all plays out.
If you're among those who think the idea is a terrible one, you might wish add your name to THIS PETITION.
In the meantime, how about a sales pitch...
Are you stumped on finding something cool and inexpensive for the traveler on your gift list? Well, how about a copy of COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything Your Need to Know About Air Travel, the great new book from yours truly. Says me, it's the ideal stocking-stuffer for the frequent flyer, nervous passenger or global traveler.
For more information, reviews and praise, SEE HERE.
Copies, including e-book and audiobook versions, are available through Amazon, iTunes, and at bookstores everywhere. (Get over to Porter Square Books in Cambridge and insist they order more copies!)
Autographed copies can be purchased HERE.
Yes, by the way, that's my actual passport in the photo (upper left) showing the visa from a short trip to Vietnam that I took a few years back, detailed with some hilarity (or so I was trying) HERE.
IN THE WAKE of the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month, among the questions being asked is this one: should TSA screeners be armed?
My answer is no, they should not be. Readers of my articles and my book already know of my disappointment with many of TSA's policies and protocols. Let me say up front that I am not using this incident as just another opportunity to criticize the agency and arbitrarily oppose a policy, and by no means do I wish to downplay the seriousness of the shooting. But the question of arming of TSA workers has come up before. It ought to be opposed for good reasons:
First, citizens need to realize that TSA screeners, despite what their blue shirts and silver badges might imply, are not law enforcement officers, and do not have police authority -- such as the power to arrest. Deputizing and training even a limited number of these employees to carry and use deadly weapons is granting the agency a power it neither has neither earned nor requires to fulfill its mission. It also would be very expensive. That expense would be passed directly to the taxpayers, or perhaps to the airlines, who in turn would raise fares to cover that cost.
Although what happened at LAX was tragic, the idea that armed screeners would result in a safer work environment for TSA employees, or a safer travel experience for passengers, is dubious. What happened at LAX was a random tragedy at the hands of a lone and presumably deranged gunman -- the sort of attack that could easily have taken place at a shopping mall, movie theater, etc. That the man is believed to held a grudge against TSA specifically is not a good enough reason to go handing out guns to screeners at large. The response to every mass shooting in this country should never be simply to arm more people, be they government or employees or anyone else.
Meanwhile if we are going to increase the TSA budget, there are better ways of spending that money.
We should start by speeding up and streamlining the airport screening process -- a project that would entail taking screeners away from public view in the terminal and re-training them to work behind the scenes. When it comes to protecting passengers from criminals and terrorists, concourse screeners do have a role to play, but mostly it is one of last resort. The more critical work belongs to law enforcement and TSA working together backstage, so to speak: inspecting luggage and cargo, reviewing passenger data, and foiling plotters before they reach the airport. Chances are, once a perpetrator has made it to the terminal, he or she has already figured out a way to fool whatever safeguards we have in place. Meanwhile, holding up lines so that guards can confiscate harmless pointy objects and shampoo bottles wastes our time, our money, and does nothing to make anybody safer.
I'd also suggest deploying more TSA workers overseas -- in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America -- where they could assist local security staff in the protection of US-bound aircraft. It is much more likely that a bomb or other attack would originate from somewhere overseas, yet our focus is relentlessly domestic. We've got high-tech equipment and body scanners at regional airports in Ohio, while US carriers are often forced to hire third-party contractors to assist with passenger and luggage screening in areas of the world where the threat is statistically much higher.
It's true the 9/11 attacks were launched domestically, but the failure to foil the plot had nothing to do with concourse screening. The loophole the 19 hijackers exploited was not a loophole in airport security, but rather a loophole in our mindset -- that is, our understanding of what a hijacking was, and how it would be expected to unfold, based on decades of precedent. What weapons they brought along for the job mattered little; had boxcutters been contraband, they could easily have improvised other weapons once on the aircraft. The men were not relying not on hardware at all, but on the element of surprise.
To its credit, TSA seems to realize most of this already. It took an awfully long time, but the agency is beginning to understand the limitations and challenges of its role on the front lines. Its "PreCheck" program is a smart idea, and many TSA employees are already busy doing that important work back stage. Let's keep that trend moving in the right direction. Arming screeners would be expensive, while accomplishing little or nothing in the name of safety. And if TSA wants to earn and keep the respect of the American traveler, strapping on guns, in an increasingly militarized society already awash with arms, isn't the way to do it. The way to do it is through more effective and efficient security.
(* Well, I like the concept behind it. What I don't like is that PreCheck travelers are required to pay a fee to qualify. Rather than charging Americans money to bypass the what's broken, how about fixing it instead?)
Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and the host of www.askthepilot.com. His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Questions, Answers and Reflections.
Photo composite by the author.
THE BIG NEWS IN AIR TRAVEL was last week's long-awaited -- some would say long overdue -- announcement from the FAA that it will ease the restrictions on the use of some electronic devices in flight.
There's been some confusion: the new rules pertain only to devices of tablet size and smaller -- like iPads, Kindles, MP3 players and small gaming devices. Laptop computers must remain stowed during taxi, takeoff and landing, and the use of cellular phones remains prohibited. Onboard Wi-Fi will continue to be available only above 10,000 feet, and all devices with cellular capability must be in "airplane mode" during flight.
All along there have been different rules for different devices for different reasons, and only a few of the rules are changing. The reason laptop use remains restricted is not just because of concerns over electronic interference. Your computer has to be stowed for the same reason your luggage has to be stowed: to keep it from becoming a dangerous projectile during an impact or sudden deceleration, and so that it does not impede an emergency evacuation. Time is critical during an evacuation, and the idea is to keep people from toppling over computers and tray tables as they rush for the exits.
It will be be up to individual airlines to ensure their aircraft are adequately gadget-proof. Carriers will be required to perform tests, and must submit plans as to how the new rules will be interpreted and enforced -- all subject to FAA approval. The carrier-by-carrier process means there might be small differences as to which gadgets are approved for which periods of flight.
The regulatory process seems to be working as it should, if perhaps a little too slowly: Initially there was a blanket ban on all electronic gadgets. This made sense at a time when not everything about these devices, and how their use might affect onboard equipment, was understood. Now regulators are beginning to look at specific devices, tailoring the rules as needed.
To me the latest changes are sensible and reasonable, though not everybody is sanguine. Christine Negroni, aviation journalist and author of "Deadly Departure," worries that the easing of restrictions might be a slippery slope toward reckless policy, and that the FAA is ignoring the safety concerns presented by members of a panel who studied the issue.
"The advisory committee issued a substantial list of examples of how gadgets can interfere with flight controls and systems," Negroni says. "They didn't make them up and they didn't rely on their personal experiences. They used scientific testing."
"Its a glass is half full approach. There is a great desire by the flying public to use these devices, and the FAA has ignored facts that suggest electronic devices pose a threat to concentrate on those that suggest everything will be okay. Don't get me wrong. I understand that people are already not complying, which is itself a good way to degrade safety. But the remedy proposed doesn't solve that either. It takes us further into the same territory. Who will put their device into airplane mode? How will the flight attendant check this? How responsive will passengers be to the pilots' instruction to stop using devices in low visibility approaches, for example?"
Looming behind all of this, meanwhile, is the issue of mobile phones. Are the latest changes just another step toward the lifting of all restrictions, including those pertaining to phones, or will the phones ban be permanent?
This is trickier. Anecdotal evidence suggests that phones can, every so often, interfere with a plane's electronics, and there have been at least two accidents -- one in Switzerland and one in New Zealand -- in which phones may have played a role. Granted those accidents were several years ago, and the aircraft were smaller, older models, but there's a lot about this we just don't know. Many people are led to believe the phones prohibition is totally unnecessary -- just another example of those mean old airlines making life miserable for their customers. But it's not that simple. Have I, as an airline pilot, ever experienced what I thought to be interference from a phone? No, but that doesn't mean it's impossible, and erring on the side of caution here is probably prudent.
As it stands, you couldn't use your phone during flight if you wanted to. The cellular networks aren't reachable once you're above a few thousand feet, and even at low altitudes calls would seldom stay connected for very long. Technology already exists that that could eliminate these glitches, and at some point the safety challenges too are likely to be surmounted. But is that really the way to go?
Ultimately, I suspect this will come down to being a social issue rather than a technological one. In other words, even if on-board calling were technologically reliable and a hundred percent safe, does that make it a good idea? Do you really want to be crammed into an airplane with two-hundred people all chatting away on their phones at the same time?
Air travel is already such a noisy experience. U.S. airports are intolerably loud. There are people shouting, kids screeching and carts beeping; public address announcement play constantly, sometimes two and three at a time, while TV news monitors blare mindlessly at every gate. It's not until stepping onto the airplane that travelers find some peace and quiet. I say we keep it that way. Perhaps, eventually, we could tweak the rules to allow some forms of inflight calling. Have a designated area in the back of the plane, for example, where passengers could, one or two at a time, place a call if needed. Or maybe a "chattering" section, akin to the old smoking section, where callers could sequester themselves and drive one another crazy.
No rush. Count me among those who hope the ban stays in place.
Patrick Smith's new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AIR TRAVEL.
Lou Reed, founding member of the Velvet Underground and one of rock's most influential musicians, died Sunday on Long Island at age 71. Reed had been ill for some time, and had undergone a liver transplant earlier this year.
This is the saddest news in music since the death of the great Joe Strummer in 2002.
Lou Reed's career spanned close to five decades. Debating what was or wasn't his most important work is of course a subjective and perhaps pointless exercise, but in my opinion Reed was responsible for three of the best rock songs of all time. Those would be "Sweet Jane," "Rock & Roll," and the seven-minute "Oh! Sweet Nuthin!"
Remarkably, all three of these songs appear on the same album, 1970's Loaded. The first two, in fact, are back-to-back as the record's second and third tracks. I dare anybody to come up with a stronger one-two punch. *
The greatness of those songs can be appreciated long-form, or parsed into seconds. Check out the drop, the gear-shift, at time 2:28 in the song "Rock & Roll."
Understandably, "Sweet Jane" would become one of the most covered songs ever (my favorite version being the playful Jazz Butcher's cover from the Gift of Music album in 1985).
Not to diminish the Velvets' earlier, more avant-garde efforts (still waiting for one of the obits to mention "Sister Ray"), but it's Loaded, whether because or in spite of its mainstream accessibility, that puts Lou Reed in the pantheon.
The Velvet Underground in Gerard Malanga's famous photograph: Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed and John Cale.
* Some of the author's favorite one-two punches:
Velvet Underground: "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" (Loaded)
Husker Du: "Never Talking to You Again" and "Chartered Trips" (Zen Arcade)
The Clash: "Wrong 'Em Boyo" and "Death or Glory" (London Calling)
The Mountain Goats: "Jeff Davis County Blues" and "Distant Stations" (All Hail West Texas)
Song arrangement is an art unto itself -- or it used to be, anyway -- and this isn't necessarily about the merits of the individual songs. It's about the way they merge -- the flow, the transition, and the consistency (or change) of mood and feeling.
Anyway, as we know, celebrity deaths, like tropical storms (and plane crashes), seem to happen in threes -- or at least in twos. Marcia Wallace, voice of Edna Krabapple on Fox TV's "The Simpsons," died this weekend at age 70.
Wallace joins Phil Hartman as the second "Simpsons" star to die during the show's run. Hartman, the voice of actor/pitchman Troy McClure and the inept attorney Lionel Hutz, was murdered by his wife in 1998.
Maybe this is in bad taste, but perhaps the death of Ms. Wallace will persuade the execs at Fox to finally the pull the plug on America's favorite family?
At its peak, between 1992 and 1996, "The Simpsons" was untouchable. "A spectacular five-year run," said the writer Charles Bock in a recent issue of Harper's "in which the show was as consistently funny and refreshing and innovative as anything in the history of broadcast television."
Very true. And a very long time ago. In the years since, the show has gone from untouchable to unwatchable.
Creative decline is to some degree unavoidable and happens to everybody. How tragic it has been, though, for something once so brilliant to have become so crass and embarrassing. The show once excelled with its masterfully hewn characters, rapid-fire comic timing and a welcome lack of the sort of self-congratulatory comic vanity the networks normally give us. The scripts were wry and irreverent, but never obnoxious. "The Simpsons" was art.
And then something -- I don't know what, precisely -- began to go terribly wrong. There is no single moment -- a switch of writers or producers, for instance -- that commenced the demise, but within a season or two the scripts began falling apart. By 1998 the show was terrible, and has remained that way: tediously self-conscious, bloated with slapstick and annoying plots hitched cheaply to various events, celebrities, and products drawn from popular culture.
In its prime, only rarely would "The Simpsons" venture into pop culture or current events. Its plots and archetypes were fixed and timeless, which is much of what made the show so good for so long. Abandoning this approach is much of what ruined it.
Am I the only one who feels this way? In October, 1990, the openly gay actor Harvey Fierstein appeared in a fondly remembered episode playing Homer's personal assistant, Karl. Watching this episode today, you see how deftly the writing and directing was able to incorporate the theme of implicit homosexuality. Not once is the word "gay" uttered; there are no political overtones or kitschy ironic references to Karl's sexuality. By comparison, one needs only to endure the 1997 guest appearance of filmmaker John Waters to see how weak and witless the scripts would become. When Fierstein was asked to appear in a sequel to his 1990 appearance, he found the script so void of subtlety and overflowing with kitsch that he refused not only the initial offer, but a rewrite as well.
Whatever made the show sick, it so unraveled its DNA that today, watching re-runs, the eras are plainly distinct: a veteran fan can usually differentiate Simpsons "old" from Simpsons "new" within about the first ten seconds.
Sadly, the longer "The Simpsons" plays on, the weaker and more diluted it becomes in our cultural memory. Somebody pull the plug, please.
Okay, go ahead, start posting those insults in the comments boxes below. And be sure to include a snarky reminder that I'm a pilot, not a music or media critic, and that I should stick to aviation.
It's difficult to broach the subject of creative decline, prevalent as it is, without drawing the usual criticisms: You're stuck in the past, you're a Luddite, you're an old fart who hates change, etc.
I once wrote a column for Salon in which I tracked the fall of several well-known bands. All forms of art are prone to this sort of arc, but it's especially common in music (if maybe not inevitable: Loaded, that Velvet Underground album with three of the best-ever songs, was the band's last).
For example I described The Replacements' 1981 debut, Sorry Ma Forgot to Take Out The Trash, as "the greatest garage rock album of all time," while also submitting that the band's later-career material, for which it is much better known, is by comparison a huge disappointment. Man, that got the letters coming in.
But I believe that I'm right. There's a tendency, I think, for once-marginalized musicians to grow overconfident after achieving a certain measure of success. And when they do, their albums become overextended; self-conscious and self-indulgent. Tim, an album released in '85, was the last memorable effort from the Replacements. Next came the gutless Pleased to Meet Me, marking the unfortunate point where the 'Mats jumped the shark.
(If you need additional proof, Wikipedia reports that Green Day vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong said of seeing The Replacements perform live after the release of Pleased to Meet Me: "It changed my whole life.")
This was around the same time that Husker Du, that other indie sensation from the Twin Cities, also jumped the shark. They signed with Warner Brothers and promptly treated us to an album named Candy Apple Grey. There are two outstanding cuts on that record: the bookends "Crystal" and "All This I've Done for You," both written by Bob Mould. But they are poor compensation for the horror of Mould's "Too Far Down" or the piano-laced abomination that is Grant Hart's "No Promise Have I Made," one of the most pretentious rock songs in history. Every copy of Candy Apple ought to be tracked down, baled up, and scuttled at sea. This record was so annoying, they even had to spell "Grey" with the e like that.
(More proof? Armstrong and Green Day again, with a whole catalog of fantastic Husker songs to pick from, opted to cover "Don't Want to Know if You Are Lonely," a so-so cut from Candy Apple Grey.)
These sorts of collapses can happen surprisingly early in a band's career. Consider REM, whose first two full-length albums, Murmur and Reckoning, are masterworks. But the latter was released in 1984, almost thirty years and dozens of watery, throw-away albums ago.
I think REM lost it around the time Michael Stipe decided to sing in actual lyrics rather than in tongues. If you've got a copy of Murmur around, throw on the song "Shaking Through." It's beautiful. And it's also hilarious, because although Stipe sings in a slow and meticulous voice, with every syllable perfectly audible, you still can't understand a single word he's saying.
As a sign on a bin in a Boston record shop once put it: "REM: the only band that mutters!"
Note: Portions of the above text originally appeared in the magazine Salon.
Update: October 28th. Jonny Gomes. Yes, I know, the events of Game 4 on Sunday night have somewhat wrecked the credibility of my argument below. Gomes's heroics are hereby duly noted. But I do wish the Sox would stop relying on miracle home runs to bail out their otherwise anemic offense.
October 22, 2013
Am I a sports fan? No, not really. But every year between April and October, I live and die with the Red Sox.
It isn't about athletics, or even, necessarily, about baseball. If you grew up around here you'll understand: the Red Sox have transcended sports to become a fixture of psycho-cultural obsession. Like the weather, they are embedded in the New England psyche -- an eternal pattern of warm summer promise and, at least until recently, cold autumnal foreboding. We remember our baseball seasons the way we remember famous storms. The Blizzard of '78; Bucky Dent. To paraphrase Hall of Fame Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk: People don't merely watch the Red Sox, they live their lives through them.
There's something awful about that, don't you think? It's certainly unhealthy. And although things changed forever in 2004, for many of us the scar tissue of defeat is layered like the rocky crags of the Maine coastline, or the 300-year old grime of a Boston street. The Boston Globe's Ellen Barry once put it this way: "Over the years, there has been no shortage of self-analysis in Red Sox Nation, whose fan base includes the highest concentration of mental health professionals in the country. On the contrary, the Nation has fingered its past injuries obsessively, like a character out of Dostoyevsky, trapped in a recurring parable of loss. They are, as a group, swamped by their own emotions, suspicious of happiness, and apt to catastrophize."
Count me in. For example, I spent most of that cataclysmic eighth inning of the final playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees in 2003 curled on the kitchen floor in a semi-fetal position. (At first I'd tried buttressing myself against a wall, bent forward with my arms wrapped over my head, but the tension was too great. So I dropped to the ground and covered my ears, so I wouldn't hear the crack of the bat if the Yankees, against the odds, tied the game. Which naturally they did.)
Until 2004, Red Sox fans had been pathologically defeatist and well accustomed to pain. We feasted on perennial October failure, served cold and often the result of some preposterously unlikely chain of events. Like a plane crash.
But it's different now, of course, having finally won it all in '04 (and again three seasons later), and good for that. Water under the bridge, as they say.
Yet can I please offer up a rant about the 2013 edition of the Sox? Specifically, can I please put on record the sheer disappointment I feel over the manager's stubborn refusal to put my favorite player, Daniel Nava, in the lineup?
Daniel Nava's .395 on-base percentage for the year was third among all AL outfielders. His .303 batting average was second-highest on the team and eighth-highest in the league. He had a higher average and a higher slugging percentage than Dustin Pedroia.
So naturally he was benched for five of the six games against the Tigers, and it looks like he'll be sitting for the World Series as well. You don't want a guy like that in your lineup.
Instead we have Jonny "Sasquatch" Gomes in there. Who doesn't like Jonny Gomes? He's fun to watch, he gives it all he's got, and he's been effective at times. But come on... the guy hit .250 for the year and is under .200 for the postseason. Why has he become the full-time left fielder?
In the sports section of Monday's Globe, manager John Farrell said that Jonny Gomes helps gives the lineup "personality." Oh. I didn't realize that winning baseball games was a personality contest.
During the broadcast of game six against Detroit, commentator Joe Buck said that Gomes helps give the lineup "a different look."
I have no idea what in the world that's supposed to mean (other than in the literal sense), or how on earth it could justify letting Nava sit. A different look all right: the look of a guy striking out, stranding runners and not reaching base.
We need more guys like him. Imagine a whole lineup of Jonny Gomes. Not just one guy hitting under .200, striking out and not getting on base, but nine of them! That'd be a winning team for sure!
And the fans, they love him. With his ZZ Top beard, his full-sleeve tats and that crazy gleam in his eye, he's such a "gamer."
The Globe's ALCS review section on Monday had about a dozen photographs, and it seemed like half of them were photos of Jonny Gomes. In one of the captions he's described as, "Red Sox slugger Jonny Gomes." Slugger? Are you sure? In another one, he is biting the corner of the ALCS trophy. What a nut! He's so crazy! Not like that boring Daniel Nava, who only hits .303 and hardly has a beard.
Me, I'm nervous about this series against the Cardinals. And it's not just the Gomes Factor. He is one of several players who've been playing with invisible bats and whiffing like there's no tomorrow.
The Red Sox combined for 73 strikeouts in six games against the Tigers. That is the all-time MLB record for strikeouts in any postseason series. The previous record was 70, and that was over seven games! By the time the 2013 World Series concludes, it's pretty likely the Sox will have broken the total postseason strikeout record.
There are those who look at strikeouts another way. They drive up pitch counts, the thinking goes, and wear down the opposing pitcher. But not if you're whiffing on three straight pitches, as Sox players are prone to do -- to say nothing of the strikeout's failure to move runners along. I do not subscribe to the strikeouts are cool school. To me, it's an empty out.
Right, anyway, so what's all this got to do with commercial air travel, and a blog called "Ask the Pilot"?
Well, nothing, and as fans I reckon most airline pilots prefer the NFL gridiron over that pastoral green diamond any day. Still though, baseball is adopted as metaphor for just about everything, and there are, in this case, some colorful cultural parallels between baseball and aviation...
Ballplayers tend to look like pilots, for one, and their postgame interviews always seem to ring with the same cliches and regional drawls as those "thanks for flyin' with us" announcements.
Both pilots and players train hard and face a long, regimented system of step-by-step challenges. Either can see a career wiped out by a single miscue or accident -- a fastball in the face, a torn ligament, or a gear-up landing.
When a pilot earns his private license, he's made it to the bottom of the minor leagues. Building time in a four-seat Piper or Cessna, he's playing in the equivalent of A-Ball.
With some time under his belt, maybe he gets a job instructing or running weekend charters to Nantucket. He's broke, with a job or two on the side, but when asked his occupation he answers "pilot" without that annoying twinge of embarrassment. Double-A.
Next comes a job with a regional carrier -- a huge step up. Now there are flight attendants, real uniforms, and jets that wear the names and colors of the majors. Clearly this is Triple-A. Those American Eagles and Delta Connections are the Pawtucket Red Sox and Columbus Clippers. You're almost there, and for the first time you can just about eke out a living. A lucky few will take that final step; most will not. And if this is where it ends, well, heck, you came pretty close.
Finally at the majors, be it Leagues or airlines, the perks and cachet speak for themselves. There's no higher plateau. You've made it to "The Show." Of course, your first assignment is to the dregs of routes and schedules -- on call, reserve status, dragged from home by a phone call at 3 a.m. You are, you might say, a bench player. That 747 captain, he's the All Star outfielder with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers or Braves. You're just glad to be here, rubbing elbows with these guys.
Hazards are all around. The economy tanks and the furlough notices go out, it's back to the minors for a few seasons.
And not everybody makes it to this level. There are only so many Americans, Uniteds and Deltas to go around. A pilot may instead find himself at the likes of AirTran, Spirit Airlines or Frontier. An exciting job, sure, but without that edge of prestige. He is, so to speak, playing in Japan.
With one important caveat: The failure of a ballplayer to progress through the ranks, from A ball to the majors, is usually a failure of talent. It doesn't work that way for pilots. It's the industry's relentless hiring cycles, attrition, and plain old luck, more than anything else, that determine a pilot's destiny, not how good he is.
Photo composite by the author.
By the way, when sports teams travel, it's usually in a chartered commercial aircraft. Players sit it economy class; coaches and managers sit in first. These are game-at-a-time charters. It's rare for teams to have a single, dedicated aircraft at their disposal for an entire season, and even more uncommon for a team to outright own an airplane.
Note: Portions of this post originally appeared in the magazine Salon in 2003.
A bit of a follow-up to my previous post about all the exciting new airline service at Logan...
No sooner was I done gushing about the arrival of JAL, Copa and Turkish Airlines when Emirates will make BOS its latest U.S. city when it launches Boeing 777 nonstops to Dubai this spring.
Through DXB, passengers can connect onward to Emirates' massive network stretching throughout Asia, Africa, and Australia. Fast-growing Emirates was voted "World's Best Airline" in the latest Skytrax rankings.
Tokyo-Narita, Panama, Istanbul, and now Dubai. This ain't your grandfather's Logan.
Of course, the expansion of foreign-based carriers into U.S. markets -- particularly state-supported airlines like Emirates -- has become increasingly controversial. The how and why of this is a topic for another time. Controversy aside, whether you're headed to Turkey or Turkmenistan, Bali or Bangladesh, the residents of New England have a trove of new options for getting there, aboard some of the world's most elite airlines.
MEET THE PILOT
Are you a nervous passenger? A curious frequent flyer? A transient with nothing better to do?
Well if so, the Boston Public Library is where you'll want to be this Tuesday evening, October 22nd. I am scheduled to give a presentation of some kind.
I say "of some kind" because 1., I'm a lousy public speaker, and 2., I really have no idea what I'm going to say or do. Mostly, I suppose, it'll be a question-and-answer session. Anything and everything related to air travel is fair game: safety and security, airline fares and customer service, airports, pilot training, wild animal husbandry... you name it.
I'll also have some cool photos to show, and maybe do some fire juggling and who the heck knows what all else. Signed copies of my book will be for sale for $15 each.
Showtime is 6 p.m. My entourage usually arrives a few minutes early to sweep for explosives and clear away the screaming teenage girls. When I'm on the scene, it's like the Beatles at Idlewild, baby.
ONCE IN A WHILE IT HAPPENS. In 2009, the captain of a Continental Airlines 777 flying from Brussels to Newark passed away during flight. And on September 26th, the captain of a United Airlines flight bound for Seattle suffered a heart attack. In both cases, the first officer -- i.e. the copilot -- assumed command. The United captain died shortly after an emergency landing in Boise, Idaho.
And in both cases, much was made of the idea of a copilot having to take over and land on his own. Unfortunately, the press and media, along with most of the flying public, seem to have little grasp of what a copilot's job actually entails.
As I've written multiple times in my previous posts and articles, and as discussed in chapter four of my book, copilots are not apprentices. All commercial jets require a minimum of two pilots -- a captain and first officer. The latter is known colloquially as the copilot, but both individuals are full-fledged pilots, trained and qualified to operate the aircraft in all regimes of flight. The captain is in command, and takes home a fatter paycheck, but the hands-on flying duties are shared or more less equally. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, in both good and bad weather.
Granted it's extremely unusual, and perhaps a bit disorienting, for a copilot to find himself alone at the controls. There's a familiar choreography to a normal, two-pilot operation, and the absence of either pilot will throw off this choreography and substantially increase the workload for the other, remaining pilot. This is why, rare as such scenarios are, the remaining pilot is likely to ask for assistance from an off-duty colleague in the cabin, or even from a flight attendant. While not a necessity, it's a good idea to have a second person on hand to help with radio communications, the reading of checklists, or the manipulation of certain switches or controls (deploying the landing gear, setting flaps, etc.). However, while the workload might be higher and the routines out of synch, the tasks themselves, including the landing, are nothing the average copilot hasn't executed thousands of times in the course of a career.
Be wary of what you see and read. On the heels of the United incident, one prominent media outlet urged calm, reminding readers that copilots, like captains, are in fact "trained pilots." You don't say?
It was even worse after the Continental incident in 2009, "That's what copilots are for," said an editor at Flight International magazine. "To stand in for the pilot in case of emergency." Really? It's possible this comment was taken out of context, but I had never in my life read a more ignorant and misleading characterization of a copilot's duties and responsibilities.
If I seem unreasonably touchy, maybe that's because I'm a copilot myself.
At an airline, tenure is everything, and a copilot advances from copilot to captain -- we call it "upgrading" -- not by virtue of skill or talent, but by virtue of date-of-hire seniority. The seniority system dictates that all pilots be hired initially as copilots, regardless of how much captain time you may have accrued at a past employer. Pilots then submit standing bids for position (captain or first officer), aircraft type and base city. When a captain's slot opens up somewhere, it is filled by the most senior copilot who has bid for it. Thus that senior copilot now becomes a junior captain.
How long does it typically take to upgrade? It varies tremendously airline to airline, based on company expansion (or contraction), retirement attrition and the subsequent hiring cycles. Such cycles are almost impossible to predict over the long term: one airline is expanding while another is shrinking; five years down the road it's the other way around. An upgrade might take three years, five years, fifteen years… who the heck knows. I'm in my 12th year with my employer. It's a job I love dearly, but I'm not remotely close to holding a captain's position on any aircraft.
How long it takes also depends on whether or not a pilot wants to accept a captain's slot right away. A junior captain typically earns more money than a senior copilot, but salary is only one aspect of the job. Because overall quality of life -- the base you're assigned to, the plane you fly, your monthly schedule and so forth -- is often better as a top-of-the-list copilot than as a bottom-feeder captain, many copilots will bypass an upgrade until their overall seniority allows for better standing. A choice: would you prefer to be a senior copilot flying 747s to Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro, with layovers in five-star hotels and 18 days off each month, or a low-rung captain flying 737s on multiple legs each day to places like Kansas City and Nashville, with ten-hour layovers at the airport Holiday Inn? You'll probably have a better income as the junior captain, but logistically this a much more challenging job -- tougher schedules, more time away from home -- and not everybody wants it.
I know several pilots who could hold captain positions, but choose not to because of the potential impact on their lifestyle and schedules. And thus it's not terribly unusual for a copilot to be older and more experienced than the captain sitting next to him.
Where you won't find a lot of bypassing, however, is at the regional carriers -- those myriad "express" and "connection" contractors that fly on behalf of the majors. Copilot wages tend to be ridiculously low at these companies, and upgrades are coveted. Plus, having captain's time on your resume is very valuable when it comes time to applying at a major. (And if you get hired, it's back to being a junior copilot again, albeit at substantially better pay than any regional has to offer.)
Copilots are the ones with three stripes on their cuffs and epaulets. Captains wear four. In the cockpit, the copilot sits in the right seat; the captain on the left.
Long-haul flights carry augmented crews that work in shifts. You might see a captain and two first officers, a captain and three first officers, or two captains and two first officers. It differs airline to airline, as well as with the length of flight. Throw in a line check or other training exercise, and there can be as many as five pilots, in on the flight deck, in any combination of rank.
Let's talk for a minute about pillows. I’m vexed and perplexed by the widespread phenomenon of teenage girls carrying giant fluffy pillows onto airplanes.
I'm uncertain when exactly this trend got started, but you see it everywhere.
Granted it’s a helpful idea, now that many carriers no longer dispense even tiny, non-fluffy pillows on all but the longest flights. In a window seat, putting a pillow between your body and the sidewall creates a comfy sleeping surface.
The trouble is, people like me are out of the club. Grown-up men can’t walk through airports with giant fluffy pillows unless we’re willing to get laughed at. I've seen thousands of girls carrying pillows, but I'm not sure that I've ever seen a man or boy carrying one. We’re stuck with those stupid inflatable neck brace things. The other night I watched a flight boarding for Barcelona. Like most midsummer flights to Europe, it was loaded with kids between ages 17 and 25. No fewer than 25 girls had brought oversized pillows from home. Total count for the guys: zero.
This isn't right. To hell with dignity, it's time to rise up and break the pillow barrier. Who will be first?
I'm thinking we should organize a march -- a line of men strutting proudly through the concourse, giant pillows proudly in hand.
"We're men, we're strong, this is true,
Fluffy pillows aren't just for you!
Downy soft, pastel blues,
Come on girls, let us snooze!"
Later, in the parking lot, we can toss a few of those neck braces into a bonfire.
I smell a gold here mine for airport merchants. Why not a pillow shop right there in the terminal? Unlike most of the high-end crap sold at airports (watches, jewelry, massage chairs), here would be something genuinely useful. Instead of lugging those pillows from home, the girls could pick one up gate-side for a few bucks. You'd have a choice of foam or feather, and a selection of cotton pillowcases to pick from. To entice the guys, cases could be emblazoned with sports team and beer logos.
Passengers wouldn't need take-along pillows, maybe, if airlines tried a little harder to make their seats more comfortable. There's only so much you can do with an economy class chair, but as I've written in the past, some inexpensive tweaks would go a long way. The problem with economy isn't a lack of legroom or even a lack of space, per se. The problem is the often gruesome ergonomics of the space that exists. There's no lumbar support; arm-rests are at the wrong height, tray tables are the wrong size and shape, etc.
And headrests. Lots of planes feature headrests in economy nowadays. It's a nice idea, but almost always the things are flimsy and poorly designed. The wedges don't fit snugly enough around, and so your head simply rolls over them. They're useless, basically. Instead of investing slightly more for a product that works well, airlines spend slightly less for something that doesn't work at all. Not sure that I see the strategy there.
And here's some advice: if you’re going to have pillows on your aircraft, they should be good pillows. On most Asian or European airlines, economy class riders get a comfortable pillow wrapped in attractive fabric. It’s neither a significant nor expensive item, but it’s a nice one that you can actually sleep against. On an American carrier, assuming there are pillows at all, they tend to be flimsy wedges of foam about the size of a slice of bread, with coverings that tear apart like tissue.
Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and author. His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. Questions, Answers and Reflections
Q: It’s common to hear a loud, repetitive whirring sound emanating from the floorboards of Airbus planes. Sometimes it’s a high-pitched whine; other times it’s a stilted WOOF, WOOF, WOOF, like the noise a very agitated dog might make.
Almost every frequent flyer has encountered this sound at one time or another. Crews rarely make efforts to explain it, leaving passengers befuddled and sometimes worried. Because the noise is akin to a motor repeatedly trying—and failing—to start, there’s often the assumption that something is malfunctioning.
It happens on twin-engine Airbus models: the A320 series (includes the subvariants A319 and A321) and the larger A330. In the United States, the largest operators of these types are Delta, United, JetBlue, and US Airways.
What you hear is a device called the power transfer unit, or PTU, which is designed to ensure adequate hydraulic pressures during single-engine operations. To conserve fuel, it’s fairly routine for two-engine planes to taxi with an engine shut down. Each engine normally pressurizes its own hydraulic system, but with a motor not running, that leaves one system without a power source. That’s where the PTU comes in, helping left power the right, or right power the left. Since it is activated only when the pressure falls below a certain level, the PTU cycles on and off, on and off, on and off.
Due to pressure fluctuations, the noise will sometimes continue even after both engines are up and running. It also does a self-test when the starboard engine is started, so you’ll hear it then as well.
Some Boeing aircraft also employ a PTU, but the operation is slightly different and it doesn’t bark like a dog.
Another noise peculiar to Airbus models is a shrill, prolonged whine heard at the gate prior to departure and again after landing. This is an electric hydraulic pump used to open and close the cargo doors.
Q: Sometimes, while the plane is accelerating for takeoff, there's a repetitive, rhythmic thumping from below: bang-bang-bang-bang, all the way down the runway, like we're hitting a string of potholes. A friend tells me this is an indication of flat spots on the plane's tire, or a tire that isn't inflated properly.
Another good reason to ignore advice from your friends. What you're hearing is the plane's forward landing gear -- its nose tires -- hitting the recessed lights along the runway centerline. These centerline lights are inlaid flush with the pavement, but they're not that flush and almost always you can feel them.
One technique is for the pilot to track a few feet off-center. The takeoff roll is seldom perfectly straight, however -- especially during strong crosswinds -- and so the bumps might start and stop, start and stop.
Q: Why is engine power cut back shortly after taking off? Takeoff is the scariest part of flying to me, and suddenly, only seconds after leaving the ground, it feels like the plane is falling.
Planes routinely use more thrust than is necessary to take off, and the output of the engines is routinely drawn back to what we call "climb thrust" or "climb power" after reaching a thousand feet or so. This saves wear and tear on the engines, reduces noise on the ground, and keeps the jet from overspeeding (there are speed limits, yes, varying with altitude and/or the departure procedure being flown).
The sounds and sensations of this cutback are sometimes quite noticeable, but trust me the plane is not descending, or even decelerating. It's simply not climbing as sharply, and the rate of acceleration is reduced.
NOTE: Portions of this Q&A originally were published in the magazine SALON.
It has been said that the real measure of a city's greatness has nothing to do with its cultural or civic institutions, its establishments of higher learning, or the prominence of any businesses or industry. No, what really counts is how many foreign cities you can fly to from its airport.
Who said such a thing? I did. Is it true? Of course not.
Not entirely, anyway. But air routes to far-flung places do lend a city a certain prestige. There's something exciting, even a touch glamorous, that comes with being able to reach some distant foreign capital directly from your home town.FULL ENTRY
Did the Gray Lady not learn its lesson after the Noah Gallagher Shannon debacle a few months ago?
Now comes a story in the Times's "Frequent Flier" column, in which reporter Joan Raymond recounts a tale from business traveler Greg Hill. Hill gives us the following....
We were supposed to be flying into Midway International and the pilot’s approach was long and slow. As we were coming in for the landing, not more than 1,000 feet off the ground, the pilot made a sharp turn to the right. The turn was so tight that he seemed to bank at a 90-degree angle. I had the window seat and was looking straight down at the ground. I could hear alarm bells going off in the cockpit. Just as I was convinced we were going to flip over on our back like a turtle, and any turtle can tell you that is not a good thing, the plane went into another 90-degree turn. But this time, it was to the left. I looked out the window again and I saw stars. It seemed the pilot confused Chicago O’Hare with Chicago Midway and was landing at the wrong airport. At the last minute either he or the control tower realized the problem and he tried to correct his mistake. When we finally did land at Midway, the pilot bolted off the plane. I have never seen anyone move that fast. I haven’t flown on that particular airline since.
I cannot say for certain why Greg Hill's airplane may have made a pair of sharp turns on its approach to Midway, or why its approach was "long and slow." There are several possibilities, none of which are terribly exciting: spacing vectors, for instance, or a last-minute runway change And as several emailers have pointed out, the circle-to-land approach to Midway's runway 22L typically includes a series of low-altitude turns. This is normal, if potentially unsettling to some passengers. (The "Expressway Visual" to runway 31 at La Guardia is a similarly action-packed, and perfectly routine arrival pattern.)
Whatever was going on, I am relatively certain that the crew mixing up O'Hare and Midway airports was not it. Hill's clever disclaimer here is the phrase, "it seemed," which, despite his having no idea what actually happened, grants him license to indict an airline crew for making a stupid mistake.
As for those "alarm bells," that could have been the autopilot disconnect alert, or a simple trim-in-motion alert, neither of which means anything unsafe or unusual.
And don't get me started on Hill's use of the term, "the pilot." How many times have we been through this? There would have been at least two fully qualified pilots in the cockpit, either of whom, captain or first officer, may have been at the controls. And the notion that one of these pilots went dashing off the plane in a fit of embarrassment is too silly to entertain. (If one of the pilots did exit quickly, more likely it was because he was trying to catch a commuter flight home.)
I can also assure you that the angle of bank was nowhere remotely close to 90 degrees. This gets into something I call PEF or Passenger Embellishment Factor, the tendency for people to grossly exaggerate the sensations of flight (there's more about PEF in Chapter 2 of my book). A commercial airliner will almost never bank at more than about 25 degrees. That doesn't sound like much, but a 25-degree turn appears awfully steep to the typical passenger, just the way a 20-degree climb or a five-degree nose-down descent (yes, five degrees is a fairly sharp descent angle) appears much steeper. In a 60-degree bank, never mind 90 degrees, the G-forces would be so powerful that a passenger would barely be able to lift his or her feet from the floor.
Call me uptight or overly sensitive, but it infuriates me that passengers are taken at their word when it comes to things like this. Mr. Hill clearly knows nothing about flying, yet the most prestigious newspaper in the world will go ahead and print an account in which, despite having no credible evidence, he accuses airline pilots of being lost and making reckless maneuvers. He couches it with the likes of "it seemed," and surely the paper will say that his subjective observations are just that, and fair game. But of course this story will be quoted and passed along as fact. And it's precisely this kind of thing that helps perpetuate the many myths and fallacies of commercial air travel, and further galvanizes people's distrust and contempt for airlines.
Over and over we see this in the media: when it comes to flying, anything goes, no matter how ignorant, untrue, or ill-informed.
Related story: A Flight of Fancy
NOTE: To those readers who've been accusing me of riding James Fallows' coat tails on this story, no fair. Fallows published his version a day and a half after mine. In fact I'm the one who told him about the Times article!
Composite artwork by Patrick Smith
Last week, a Southwest Airlines 737 suffered a collapse of its nose gear upon landing at La Guardia airport. Ten people were injured.
Investigators are now saying that the jet’s gear may have failed not because of a malfunction, but because the pilots managed to land nose-first, causing it to bend backwards, seriously damaging the gear assembly and avionics bay.
According to reports, the jet hit the runway at an angle of about 3 degrees nose-down. That might not sound like much, but even a steep descent is typically made at no more than 3 degrees or so. And any amount of nose-down pitch on touchdown is a problem. A correct landing attitude, while it varies with wind and other factors, is almost always a few degrees nose-up.
Why is it bad for a plane to land on its nose gear? Well, why is it bad for a bird to land on its face? And if, indeed, this is what happened at LGA, the question shifts to why and how the pilots found themselves in such an unusual predicament.FULL ENTRY
ONE OF MY FAVORITE airport restaurants is the Yankee Clipper, found just off the rotunda of the Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport.
The Marine Air Terminal rotunda is one of the most special places in all of commercial aviation, and having a cool restaurant on hand is a great way to bring people in -- if not for the cuisine, to at least appreciate the historic building, with its flying fish relief, art deco detailing, and of course the famous "Flight" mural by James Brooks. The restaurant is owned and run by Rocco Manniello, who has decorated the alcove with a series of historic photos from the days of Pan Am's flying boats, which once docked just outside.
In MY BOOK I say this:
"The next time you’re at La Guardia, check out Rocco Manniello’s Yankee Clipper restaurant over at the Marine Air Terminal. Rocco’s is a cafeteria-style place on the left-hand side of the rotunda. It’s good greasy spoon food with absolutely no corporate affiliation. If Anthony Bourdain ever does a segment on airport food, Rocco’s should be his first stop."
Well, that was a nice idea. The trouble is, Rocco has really let the place go to hell. On my last three or four visits, I left depressed and disappointed. The restaurant was dirty and swarming with flies. The tables were greasy and the floor looked like it hadn't been swept in days. A pair of wall-mounted TVs were cranked to eleven, blaring some inane afternoon talk show at the handful of diners (almost exclusively airline employees) trying to enjoy their lunches.
The food? You can only go so wrong with a wrap, I suppose, but the offerings in the steam trays definitely looked like they'd been sitting there too long.
Come on Rocco, you're ruining my credibility. If Anthony Bourdain isn't annoyed with me enough already for ripping off the title to his bestselling book (that'd be Kitchen Confidential), he's surely lose all respect for me should he take my advice and give the Yankee Clipper a try.
It doesn't need to be this way. It would take only a token bit of effort to get the place in shape. Things like a mop and sponge aren't exactly major investments. You've got a great location, and who doesn't love those stylish, aluminum-backed chairs? (The chairs are done in the same art-deco style as the building's window and door frames. Could they possible be original?)
I hope the Yankee Clipper's days aren't numbered. For nostalgia's sake, sure, but also because it's one of the few independent restaurants still to be found at an American airport. In fact, it's one of the few independent anythings still to be found at an American airport. The more our terminals and shopping malls become indistinguishable from one another, the more valuable a place like Rocco's becomes.
Commissioned in 1952, the James Brooks painting traces the history of aviation from mythical to (then) modern, Icarus to Pan Am Clipper. The style is a less-than-shy nod at Socialist realism, and at the height of ’50s McCarthyism, in a controversy not unlike that surrounding Diego Rivera’s famous mural at Rockefeller Center, it was declared propaganda and obliterated with gray paint. Not until 1977 was it restored.
The Marine Air Terminal is at the far southwest corner of La Guardia airport, directly adjacent to the Delta Shuttle.
So, what's your favorite indie airport eating spot?
Here at Logan, what have we got? There's Legal Seafood, of course, but I'm not sure if they qualifiy. Legal is a regional chain, but it's still a chain. Besides, while I could eat a gallon of their chowder in a single sitting, the sandwich wraps at the Legal Test Kitchen (LTK) annex are, in my opinion, terrible and overpriced. Nine dollars for a token slab of chicken hidden somewhere in a tasteless padding of lettuce? And this...
PHOTOS BY AUTHOR
I've written an analysis of the Asiana crash in San Francisco. What went wrong, and why? Did pilot experience play a role? Were the challenges of SFO airport a factor? And what about the safety of Korean air carriers?
I can't post the whole thing here, but the full article is UP NOW IN SLATE MAGAZINE.
Follow-up, July 15
As I suspected might happen, the culture issue has now become part of the conversation, spurred by a series of email testimonials from U.S. pilots who taught and worked in Asia,vouching for the incompetence of Korean pilots. One of these, supposedly written by a former United Airlines captain, is particularly damning.
It irks me that so many of these accounts are neither signed nor dated. I'm by no means dismissing them entirely, but this stuff could be several years old. And if you don't have the courage to date and sign your name to such a thing, you shouldn't be sending it around. Even if some of the contentions are valid, the motives behind them become questionable.
It's possible that some of what these testimonials say is relevant, and Korean aviation may still have some deficiencies to work through, which leaves me surprised and disappointed. Still, there's a tone to the accounts that really bothers me. There's a consensus building that is very anti-Korea and anti-Asia (in an air safety context), and while there might be some important factors in play, the whole thing strikes me as witch hunt-y.
And for what it's worth, it remains true that Korea spent a lot of time and money overhauling its civil aviation system back in the 1990s. ICAO's 2008 assessment said Korean aviation was, overall, the safest in the world, ahead of more than a hundred other countries, including the United States.
So, I'm not sure who or what to believe.
Meanwhile, the Globe's Katie Jonston ran a story on July 8th that talked about the similarities between Boston's Logan Airport and San Francisco International.
I'm quoted briefly in the story, but there are a couple of points I'd like to emphasize...
BOS, like SFO, is a harborside airport, and I understand that many passengers feel anxious when landing over water. But this unease is something I've never fully understood. Whether approaching over land or sea, it makes absolutely no difference from a pilot's perspective. The mechanics of the landing are exactly the same: there is no difference in glide path. So where does this anxiety come from? Perspective might have something to do with it: passengers can only see to the side, while pilots, of course, have a forward view and a much clearer picture of the plane’s orientation.
SOMETIMES when I hear the whine of jet engines, I think of the beach.
I don’t expect that to make sense to you — unless, like me, your childhood was defined by an infatuation with jetliners and summers spent at a beach that sat directly below an approach course to a major airport.
That would be Revere Beach, in my case, just north of Boston, in the mid- to late 1970s.
Then as now, the city of Revere was a gritty, in many ways charmless place: rows of triple-deckers and block after block of ugly, two-story colonials garnished in gaudy wrought-iron. (Revere is a city so architecturally hopeless that it can never become gentrified or trendy in the way that other Boston suburbs have.) Irish and Italian families spoke in a tough, North Shore accent that had long ago forsaken the letter “R.” Shit-talking kids drove Camaros and Trans-Ams, the old-country cornuto horns glinting over their chest hair.
Revere’s beach was the first public beach in the United States. Like the rest of the city, it wasn’t the kind of place that lent itself to niceties or sentimental descriptions. The roller coasters had long ago burned down and the boulevard was dotted by biker hangouts and the sort of honky-tonk bars and restaurants that, as a kid, you never dared set foot in, no matter how bad you needed to use the bathroom. Seagulls swooped and gorged on the garbage toppling out of overloaded barrels and dumpsters.
But it had the sand, and water that was clean enough to swim in — with those long, flat, shimmering low tides that seemed to recede all the way past Nahant and into the horizon. We spent our summers here, nearly all of the weekends and many of the weekdays too. My parents would have the car packed by 10 a.m. I remember the folding chairs, the towels and the endless supply of Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion, its oily coconut aroma mixed with the hot stink of sun-baked Oldsmobile leather.
I swam, dug around for crabs and endured the requisite mud-ball fights with my friends. But for me, the real thrill was the airplanes. Revere Beach’s mile-long swath lines up almost perfectly with Logan International Airport’s Runway 22L, the arrivals floating past at regular intervals, so low you’d think you could hit them with one of the discarded Michelob bottles poking from the sand. I’d bring a notebook and log each plane as it screamed overhead.
They’d appear first as black smudges. You’d see the smoke — the snaking black tails of a 707 or DC-8 as it made its final turn up over Salem or Marblehead. Then came the noise. Little kids — and grown-ups too — would cover their ears. People today don’t realize how earsplittingly loud the older-generation jets could be. And they were low, barely 1,500 feet above the sand, getting lower and lower and lower until finally disappearing over the hill at Beachmont, maybe 20 seconds from touchdown.
I remember all of them: TWA 707s and L-1011s in the old, twin-globe livery. United DC-8s and DC-10s in the ’70s-era bow-tie colors. Flying Tiger DC-8s and 747s. Allegheny’s DC-9s and BAC One-Elevens. Eastern’s 727 “Whisperjets” that did anything but whisper. And so on. I remember Braniff, Piedmont, Capitol and Seaboard World; TAP, North Central, Zantop and Trans International.
The term “regional jet” wouldn’t exist for at least another decade. Instead we had “commuter planes.” There was PBA and its Cessna 402s; Air New England’s Twin Otters and FH-227s and Bar Harbor’s Beech-99s. Pilgrim, Empire, Ransome and Downeast.
Fast-forward 30 years:
The arrivals pattern to 22L hasn’t changed. It still passes directly over Revere Beach. After I finally became an airline pilot, one of my biggest thrills was being at the controls on a 22L arrival into BOS, looking down at the same beach from which I spent a childhood looking up.
But other things are different.
The demographics of Revere and its beach have changed, for one. The Revere of my youth was a city in which pretty much every last family was Italian, Irish or both. At the beach it was no different. Today, both the neighborhoods and the sand are a virtual United Nations of the North Shore. Those harsh, R-less accents are only a portion of the mix, joined by voices in Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and Khmer. The muscle shirts, Italian horns and shamrocks are still there, but those sunburned Irish complexions are contrasted against those from Somalia, Ghana, Haiti and Morocco. Not long ago the idea of a black person at Revere Beach was unheard of. In fact, I remember a day — it must have been ’77 or ’78 — when word spread across the sand that a black family had staked out a blanket down near the MDC bathhouse. This was such a novelty at the time that my friends and I took the quarter-mile stroll just to see if it was true.
The sand itself is a different color, the result of countless trucked-in tons to replenish what the various storms have torn away. The pavilions have rebuilt; the old concrete seawall across from the police station is gone.
And overhead, those plumes of oily smoke are gone. The jets nowadays are cleaner, much quieter. And, thanks to the generification of the modern jetliner, they’re also a lot less exciting. At age 12 I could tell a DC-10 from an L-1011 when it was 10 miles out. Every plane had its own distinct profile. Today’s jets are often indistinguishable, even at short range. And somehow the endless procession of A320s, 737s and regional jets just doesn’t get the pulse going, or the sunbathers pointing, the way a 707 or a DC-8 would — its motors shrieking, smoke spewing behind in a hellish black rooster tail.
Revere itself has both gained and lost character over the years. The skies above, though, have mostly just lost it.
Patrick Smith (that's me) and Sourcebooks are proud to announce publication of Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. Questions, Answers, and Reflections.
"A book to be savored and passed to friends." -- William Langeweische, Vanity Fair
Pitching one's own book is a little awkward, but I like to think of Cockpit Confidential as a wry, thoughtful, at times provocative look into the confounding world of commercial air travel: the ideal take-along for frequent flyers, nervous passengers, world travelers, and anybody yearning for a behind-the-scenes look at the strange and misunderstood business of commercial aviation.
More than just a book about flying, its subject is everything and everything about the grand theater of air travel (as I like to call it), from airport architecture to terrorism to the colors and cultures of the world's airlines.
"Patrick Smith has been called the thinking man's pilot, writing with a wit and style perhaps not normally associated with the ranks of commercial aviators. For the better part of a decade, his 'Ask the Pilot' column at Salon.com was a singular and remarkable sensation: an aviation column, for heaven's sake, that could offer up trenchant analysis of an air disaster one day, then the next day stride fearlessly into politics, culture, or even rock music, and somehow tie it all together. Cockpit Confidential features the best of that material, refreshed and adapted into a seven-chapter volume of FAQs, essays and personal memoir. Whether it's the nuts and bolts of cockpit operation or a hilarious critique of airline logos and color schemes, Patrick Smith can riff with surprising levels of humor, insight and eloquence. Cockpit Confidential is smart, funny, and brimming with useful information."
Whether you're a skittish first-time flyer or a jaded million-miler, few books could provide more apropos in-flight reading. The seven chapter format blends questions and answers with informational essays and memoir. A partial rundown of topics includes:
-- How planes fly, and a revealing look at the men and women who fly them
-- Straight talk on turbulence, pilot training, and safety
-- The real story on congestion, delays, and the dysfunction of the modern airport
-- Terrorism in perspective and a candid look at security
-- Airfares, seating woes, and the pitfalls of airline customer service
-- The colors and cultures of the airlines we love to hate
-- The yin and yang of global travel
-- Gratuitous references to 80s-era indie rock bands
Cockpit Confidential is everything my first book, Ask the Pilot (2004), should have been, but was not. It retains the same outline and chapter sequence, but virtually all of the content has been updated and revised in some way. Close to 70 percent of the material is all-new, including new essays, sidebars, a glossary, and substantially expanded questions-and-answers sections.
Print, e-book, and audiobook versions are available at booksellers everywhere, including Amazon.com, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.
[Above photo taken at Porter Square Books, Cambridge]
Now, as for the title....
I know, it's cheap and derivative -- a blatant poach of Anthony Bourdain's famous Kitchen Confidential. But it wasn't my idea.
Okay, fine, it was my idea. Or, more specifically, it was a collaborative decision between me, my agent and the publisher. It's a touch misleading, as the book isn't the least bit scandalous or sensational, but I like the sound of it -- the alliterative quality. As one person put it: "There isn't a better or a worse title for your book."
I can feel better knowing that I have Bourdain's blessings, sort of. He was a passenger on one of my flights a year or so ago, flying from Dublin to New York. I introduced myself and told him about the title. He laughed.
The big challenge in the meantime is getting the title some exposure at airports. As was the case with Ask the Pilot nine years ago, getting airport retailers to stock the book has been difficult. I long ago lost count of the number of people who, when I was working on the manuscript, said to me, “What a great idea; this will be for sale at every airport in the country.” As it happens, the book can be found only in only limited number of terminals. My gratitude to Hudson News and BookLink for carrying it, but other companies have been uncooperative. HMS Host, for example, which operates in over a hundred terminals worldwide under a variety of names ("Simply Books" is one of them), has shown no interest whatsoever.
If that strikes you as a poor business decision, I couldn't agree more, as would most reasonable people. This was a book written primarily for frequent flyers, and if there’s a more opportune selling point than the airport, for heck’s sake, I’d like to hear it. Talk about a captive audience. Is it just me, or could there not be a more ideal airport impulse buy?
I’ve gone into several outlets and spoke to the managers. In almost all of these stores, the on-site staff have virtually no control over which titles are stocked. It all comes from the corporate level, and getting your book onto their shortlist of approved titles is very difficult (unless your publisher is willing to spend lavishly on a promotion). That your book is for and about the airport makes no difference to them.
Meanwhile, you get your pick of the latest sports biographies, Suze Orman, and the usual assortment of thrillers. The other day at the airport in Detroit, I stopped by a store that was hawking the autobiography of Mike Piazza and, get ready now, the new "Mother-Daughter Love Story" by Carol Burnett.
I can't get Cockpit Confidential in the store, but there are plenty of big heavy hardcovers from a retired ballplayer and an 80 year-old comedian.
Airport retailing is weird across a number of fronts, not just books. To cut-and-paste from chapter three:
It appears the evolution of airport design will not be complete until the terminal and shopping mall become indistinguishable. I can understand the proliferation of Starbucks and souvenir kiosks, but it’s the saturation of high-end boutiques that confounds me. Apparently there isn’t a traveler alive who isn’t in dying need of a hundred-dollar Mont Blanc pen, a remote-control helicopter or a thousand-dollar massage chair.
And what’s with all the luggage stores? Who the hell buys a suitcase afterhe or she gets to the airport? I can't think of a more useless item to sell there, yet there isn't a terminal in the world without a Tumi outlet or a store selling roll-aboard bags.
A silly story in the Times magazine got some well-deserved flak. Finally the author and the paper have fessed up and apologized.
UPDATE: June 18, 2013
On June 18th, Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times' Public Editor, published a candid, if tardy mea culpa, owning up to the paper's poor response to the controversy surrounding Noah Gallagher Shannon's over-the-top account of a supposed emergency landing in Philadelphia two years ago. Separately, in an interview with James Fallows published on the 14th, Shannon himself came clean.
The story in question, written by a young, Brooklyn-based writer named Noah Gallagher Shannon, was this one.
Conde Nast's Clive Irving was among those who joined The Atlantic's James Fallows in ringing the baloney bell on Mr. Shannon's scary account.
Shoddy media coverage and overheated analysis of aviation incidents is nothing new. This particular essay, though, belonged in a category of its own. Shannon didn't give us a story about an emergency landing. He gave us an embellished tale about his own hysterical reaction to a manageable and ultimately harmless problem.
As I've written many times in my articles (there's a segment in the new book about it too), landing gear malfunctions are, from a pilot's point of view, pretty far down the list of potential nightmares, and seldom if ever do they result in injury or fatality. Mr. Shannon was either unaware of this reality, or chose to ignore it for the sake of giving his story a little more zing. I love this line especially: "A plane without landing gear is like a struck match." Total rubbish. See my articles HERE, and HERE for starters.
Then we have an obvious, perhaps intentional muddling of certain details. For instance:
"The captain came out of the cockpit and stood in the aisle. His cap dangled in one hand."
Why would the captain bring his cap?
“All electricity will remain off,” he said. Something about an open current and preventing a cabin fire. Confused noises spread through the cabin, but no one said a word."
I'd be confused as well. I cannot imagine a scenario in which the crew would would intentionally shut down a plane's electrical system because of a landing gear malfunction.
“Not going to sugarcoat it,” he said. “We’re just going to try to land it.”
If this one isn't made up, I'll eat my pilot hat. We're just going to try to land it?
The thrumming of the air-conditioning stopped.
A commercial plane's air conditioning system is not electrically powered and is unrelated in any way to the landing gear. As with the electrical system, I cannot conceive of a reason for turning it off under the circumstances described. For one thing, doing so would cause the jet to depressurize.
And so on, including the weird bits about the engines "powering down," and the plane "pitching and rolling." I have no idea what that's all about. Obviously the plane was going to pitch and roll, seeing that it was flying and would need to maneuver. And obviously the engines were going to power down if the plane was going to descend and land.
I received a letter from a person who was able to view the maintenance record of the aircraft involved. According to the information I was given, the pilots' post-flight logbook entry, which references a caution message displayed on a cockpit advisory screen of the Airbus A320, reads as follows:
"ECAM HYD Y RSVR LO LVL"
What this means, essentially, is that one of the plane's three main hydraulic systems was indicating a low level in its fluid reservoir. Airbus color-codes its hydraulic systems; this would have been the yellow (Y) system.
Per checklist instructions, the crew would've turned off this system off. This is unusual, but the loss of a single hydraulic system on a modern airliner is far from a serious emergency. All critical components have at least one alternate source of hydraulic power.
Further, the corrective action note in the logbook implies the issue was merely an indication problem. Fluid quantity was found to have been at the normal level all along.
But most importantly, Shannon's essay revolves around a landing gear problem. As I've already explained, even the most serious landing gear malfunction sits pretty far down in the hierarchy of potential disasters. Even lower, however, is a landing gear problem that does not exist: the yellow hydraulic system does not power the landing gear.
An A320 captain I spoke to says that a shut-down of the yellow system would have meant, at worst, a slightly longer-than-normal landing roll (due to loss of the right engine thrust reverser and some of the wing spoiler panels), and, in newer A320s, loss of the nose-gear steering system, requiring a tow to the gate.
There were enough red flags to begin with, but this put it over the top, tilting the entire account from one of eye-rolling embellishment toward one of outright fabrication.
In a response to James Fallows' comments in the Atlantic, the editor of the Times magazine had this to say:
"Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently. The story was about the personal experience of a fearful moment....He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published."
Ah, there you go. So we weren't supposed to take the details and their chronology seriously. As Fallows put it, "the writer was telling us 'what he heard and felt,' not necessarily what 'happened.'" I see. And no disclaimer on this account was necessary up front?
Writerly integrity aside, the real harm here, as Clive Irving notes in his Daily Beast article, is in the way accounts like Shannon's stoke people's fears. Shannon took what was surely a minor problem and fashioned it into a near-calamity. The next time there's a problem with a landing gear door or an anti-skid system, or heaven forbid a set of tires that fails to deploy, some already nervous flyer is going to remember this story and be scared out of his or her wits, all for no reason.
Hysterics like this are also offensive to the people who've lived through serious aviation accidents, and they disgrace the memories of those who weren't lucky enough to survive them. For example, compare Shannon's melodrama with the New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey's first-hand account of the midair collision he survived over the Amazon in 2006 -- an accident that killed 154 people. Sharkey's narrative, about living through one of the deadliest accidents of the last 20 years, was levelheaded and calm. He didn't need to embellish it. Shannon whimpers like a schoolgirl over a malfunction so minor that the flight crew, if we could track them down, has probably forgotten about it.
I don't know if the author was trying to be sleazy, but he was doing what too many people do: taking extreme liberties with a subject that he obviously knows nothing about -- i.e. commercial flying -- under the assumption that nobody would notice or care, and spinning them into a bogus scare-story. Flying often gets a free pass when it comes to hype and fact-checking, but Shannon and his artisanal Brooklyn fiction had no place in a publication as august as the New York Times.
And while not to pile on... Apart from the technical points, the whole style and tone of Shannon's piece were annoying and immature. What was intended to sound "emotional" and reflective came across like a seventh grade composition assignment.
The mini-sentence, for example, is a tempting, often dangerous affectation for writers when they're trying to sound pithy. Shannon gave us an instant classic: "My brain felt humid."
Then, a few lines later, he drew things out: "You can actually feel the air holding you up when a plane’s engines power down. Like when you’re riding a bike downhill and you stop pedaling, there’s noiselessness in its speed."
I'm sorry, what? Did you say, "noiselessness in its speed"?
Is this the stuff coming out of Brooklyn nowadays?
Okay, I know, I'm taking the low road. I do wish Shannon success on the book about Cormac McCarthy that his bio says he's working on. He and I have at least something in common, presumably, in addition to our great looks and hairlines: McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" is one of my two or three all-time favorite novels. I'd love to hear his thoughts on it.
For real. Just no more nonsense about airplanes.
Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and author of the new book, COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AIR TRAVEL
[photo composite by Patrick Smith]
Our airports are terrible, and our airlines find it harder and harder to compete. We've done it to ourselves through shortsightedness, underfunding, and flyer-unfriendly policies.
In a CNN poll of 1,200 overseas business travelers who have visited the United States, a full 20 percent of them said they would not visit the US again due to onerous entry procedures at airports, including long processing lines. Forty-three percent said they would discourage others from visiting the US.
"The United States risks falling behind Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as the global aviation leader."
- Carol Hallett, US Chamber of Commerce counsel
In Air Line Pilot magazine
I'd say that battle was lost a long time ago.FULL ENTRY
This morning I caught a flight from New York up to Boston. The two people behind me were having a spirited discussions about the assorted miseries of flying: wailing babies, long lines, delays, and cramped seats.
It's that last one that jumped out at me, because you hear it so much...
It's legroom, or lack thereof, that most people whine about. There's less and less of it, as airlines cram in extra rows, eager to squeeze out every last penny of revenue in the face of razor-thin profit margins.
Or maybe it just seems that way?FULL ENTRY
Late in the day on April 25, the US Senate unanimously passed legislation that would end the FAA controller furloughs and restore the nation's air traffic control system to normal, or close to normal, operation. The measure permits the shifting of more than $200 million from elsewhere in the federal budget to cover the required funding. The "Dependable Air Service Act" now moves to the US House of Representatives, where it is expected to be taken up as soon as Friday.
This should put a quick end to the delays and cancellations that have been plaguing the country's airports since last weekend. According to the FAA, roughly 1,000 commercial flights each day were in some way affected by the sequester-induced furloughs, with many delays lasting several hours.
I saw it firsthand:FULL ENTRY
This is my preemptive plea, an open letter to the media, to rein in another silly airplane story before it garners too much traction.
Too late, I know.
I'm referring to the story, which began making rounds on Thursday, about the possibility of using Android devices or similar gadgets to "hijack" or "take over" commercial airplanes by inputting rogue data to the plane's ACARS or FMS units.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, good. Chances are you do, however. If so, try not to take it too seriously.FULL ENTRY
It's interesting sometimes, the stories that get media traction.
This time it's the one about the tiny Samoan airline that has decided to charge fares based on a passenger's weight. The move has touched off discussions about whether such an idea makes sense for mainline carriers as well. After all, Americans are quite a bit larger than they used to be, and doesn't that extra weight affect an airplane's performance? Is it just a matter of time before passengers on United, Delta or American are asked to stand on a scale, like their suitcases, when checking in?FULL ENTRY
Before we get going, thanks to everybody who took the time to read my little paean to Logan Airport a couple of weeks back. If you missed it, it's here.
Logan may not be the greatest airport in the world, but it's underrated, and certainly it's a far cry from the worst. For that dubious honor, see here.
Commercial air travel has long been a breeding ground for myths, conspiracy theories, urban legends, and plain old misunderstandings. Most of what people think they know about flying is wrong.
In my columns, blogs and books, I've spent the better part of a decade trying to set the record straight, but for the most part, it's been a losing cause. Certain notions just never seem to die, to the point where many are now accepted as conventional wisdom. They've been spun and re-spun by a lazy, irresponsible media that sensationalizes even the most innocuous mishap and refuses to check its facts, often trundling out supposed experts who all too often have little idea what they’re talking about.
Here are some of flying's most stubborn myths, fallacies, and quasi-truths:FULL ENTRY
Is it just me, or is Logan Airport one of the most underrated airports in the country?
There aren't a whole lot of good things to say about US airports in general. They're noisy, dirty, confusingly laid out, often in poor repair, and sorely lacking in public transport options. We've got nothing on the airports in Europe or Asia, many of which are architecturally stunning and jam-packed with amenities. If you've ever been to Singapore, Incheon, Munich, or Amsterdam, among many others, you know what I'm talking about.
But if we had to pick one of our own...
Washington's Reagan-National has an excellent subway connection, and the terminal, with its sun-splashed central hall and vaulted ceilings, is one of America's greatest airport buildings. The international terminal in San Francisco is similarly impressive. Orlando is clean, green, and well laid-out. Portland, Oregon, is many people's favorite.
Nobody, though, ever mentions Logan. And I don't think that's fair. It's squeaky clean, well organized, and unlike the vast majority of US airports, it has an efficient public transport link to the city. It's even got some flair: what's not to like about the inter-terminal walkways, with their skyline views, terrazzo floors, and inlay mosaics?
A tour:FULL ENTRY
Last week, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced it would rescind its longstanding ban on the carriage of small knives. Effective in mid-April, passengers can once again carry implements with blades of up to 2.36 inches onto airplanes.
The decision has raised the ire of some, including flight attendant unions, who have called the decision reckless and dangerous.
However, if you ask me, this is one of the more positive things TSA has done in a long time, and will make the checkpoint process at least marginally less tedious. That some are opposed to the changes is not surprising, but the backlash strikes me as counterproductive.FULL ENTRY