Airplanes don't get no respect

The glamour of the jet age is gone, and that's a shame. It's time to bring back the wonder.


Patrick Smith
June 21, 2002 11:31PM (UTC)

I remember, as a kid and an airplane buff in the mid-1970s, when passengers still broke out in applause at every smooth landing. Sure, by this point the era of white-clad stewards and flying boats was a relic of decades past, while the glitz and excitement of the jet age had long disappeared, but travel by plane still clung to a sort of delusional esteem. Nowadays, rarely do you come across an American who has never flown in an airplane, and we've come to treat flying with ho-hum embrace as yet another impressive but ultimately uninspiring technological realm.

If one could choose a single point at which the thrill and the glamour of flying were at last rendered quaintly obsolete, the doors of the terminals flung open to the proverbial unwashed, it would have to be the moment when, in the fall of 1978, President Jimmy Carter put his name on the Airline Deregulation Act. Prior to this moment, even with tarmacs growing crowded with widebodies and leg room shrinking away, it still was possible to find vestiges of, in the words of author James Kaplan, "the days when people climbed those moveable staircases to get into silver skinned planes. Before the days when international airports would be jam-packed with Swedish kids with shorts and backpacks."

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In the years to come, deregulation would unleash a wave of upstart airlines. Most were doomed to failure or corporate absorption (think People Express, New York Air, Air Florida), but nonetheless they collectively invaded what was once the coveted territory of the well-dressed businessman or bourgeois tourist, fatally mugging a token or two of the entrenched establishment in the process (think unfortunate Luddites like Braniff and Pan Am).

Where would Southwest Airlines, a former niche player whose route system barely breached the confines of Texas, be today without this late-'70s revolution? Today, for 69 bucks, college kids and retirees can hop a Southwest jet from St. Louis to Tampa, Providence to Baltimore. And wasn't this, after all, the point? How very egalitarian. What a symbol of freedom, as Southwest's schmaltzy television ads so incessantly remind us.

The trouble is, not only did flying become cheaper and more accessible, but it became immensely more uncomfortable and tedious, prone to all the breakdown and hassle one might have expected when 250 million people suddenly have free run at a particular infrastructure.

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The going cliché, as concourses grow more crowded and profit margins slimmer, is a frustrated comparison of the airport terminal to the downtown bus station. How much longer before air travelers have to endure the same dreary disrepair and stained seatbacks of the Greyhound depot? Today, to properly savor the irony here, a passenger need only pay a visit to Boston's renovated South Station, for example, with its polished granite floors and elegant skylights, and then take a walk through Terminal C at Logan International.

Most people in 2002 do not enjoy flying; not because of inherent danger aloft, but because planes are uncomfortable and airports chaotic. This is the ultimate realization, perhaps, of a fully evolved technology, whereby flying itself has become secondary to the experience as a whole.

Here I am, sitting in a Boeing 747, a plane that, if it were tipped onto its nose, would rise as tall as a 20-story office tower. I'm at 33,000 feet over the middle of the Pacific Ocean traveling at 600 miles per hour, en route to the Far East, a voyage that once took seven weeks in a sailing ship. And what are the 400 passengers doing? Complaining, sulking, reading the paper and tapping grumbly rants into their laptops. The man next to me, having paid a $5,600 business class fare, is upset because there's a dent in the lip of his can of ginger ale.

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Progress, one way or the other, mandates that the extraordinary become the ordinary. In the case of commercial aviation, luxury and privilege were distilled into common vinegar for the masses. But don't we lose valuable perspective on our own capabilities and triumphs when we begin to equate the commonplace, more or less by definition, with the tedious? Don't we forfeit a bit of our pride when we sneer indifferently at the sight of a jet airplane -- something that is, at heart, a world-changing triumph of industrial design?

A passenger points to the turbofans slung from the wing of a Boeing 777 and calls them "those spinny things." Those spinny things are multimillion-dollar turbofans, high-tech power plants the size of a two-car garage. Ask most passengers for the specs on flying, and you'll get an answer running somewhere from a blank look and a shrug to a pseudo-technical invocation of sci-fi hooey.

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Most people can't tell you how a TV works either, even though everybody has one. Something to do with signals being beamed in and repositioned to form a picture -- like the teleporter on "Star Trek" or that scene from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." However, we don't routinely trust our lives to the mechanical workings of a television set.

In the worst cases, mix a little ignorance with some well-earned distrust, and you get an attitude of pure contempt, a witch trial in every airliner's cabin. Few people trust the airlines. Yet few people can tell you how the airlines, or their airplanes, actually work.

By attempting to alleviate fears and apprehension, airlines have helped created a cartoonish caricature of themselves. And what kind of a statement of sad inevitability was it for a European consortium to name their product the "Airbus"? Even pilots, frontline defenders of whatever respectability happens to remain in the business, often dumb down the complexities of both airplanes and the system.

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"Folks," says the captain as a delayed flight waits at the gate, "it'll be just a few more minutes. We need a mechanic to come out and take a quick look-see at a light bulb here in the cockpit, and then we'll be on our way." Once, sitting at the gate in Amsterdam, a crew informed a planeload of anxious passengers that a mechanic needed to "drop some oil into one of our motors."

Passengers imagine a buzzer going off in a tin shack where a group of men in greasy overalls are playing cards. One of them runs out with a toolbox and an aluminum funnel, swings open a metal door in the belly of the plane, maybe gives a twist to an old brass valve.

Chatting gate-side with a frequent flyer, a pilot hears, "But do you really do anything? Doesn't the autopilot do all the flying?" Next time a person lays out an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner, try this: "But did you really do anything. Doesn't the oven do all the cooking?"

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Airplanes are complicated, sophisticated and, dare the biased enthusiast suggest, beautiful (well, some of them). Lack of knowledge toward the workings of planes can seem a bit, well, uncivilized, or even disrespectful to those who bestow passion upon them. And that's not the adrenaline-charged passion some might feel at the sight of a motorcycle or muscle car, or the way a collector might coo lovingly while oiling the barrels of his rifles and handguns. Planes can be sexy, I say, but spare me the blather about phalluses and hormones.

I'm talking about a passion that takes all of humanity into account: the routes of the world's airlines bridging the continents, linking all the nations and peoples of the world.

Sound hokey, or far-fetched? I suggest a stroll through the International Arrivals Building at Kennedy Airport during the nightly transatlantic departure push: a round little microcosm of El Mundo itself -- Sikhs, Moroccans, Colombians, Arab women with their faces covered, all in a frantic, teeming mingle while muscled Port Authority cops look on suspiciously. It's an illusion, of course, a forced integration that lasts exactly until final call once again splinters the masses into their respective creeds and colors. But as the departure lobbies fill and the check-in lines swarm, it's a snapshot of multicultural nirvana that would make any campus radical cry with happiness. Outside, the crazy colors of a hundred different airlines line the tarmac. The inter-terminal bus at Kennedy says it all, its stops along the necklace of terminals so saturated with international carriers that the P.A. blares not the airline name, but the country it serves. Hungary. Ghana. Pakistan. Romania. South Africa.

And what's at the root of all this weepy culture-bridging? The aircraft itself, the graceful ship docked outside that nobody is paying attention to. But how many world travelers with their passports full of stamps and visas can tell you the difference between an A340 and a 777? How many can tell you which is the world's oldest airline (KLM), the largest plane (still the 747), or whose face that is up on the tail of EgyptAir (it's Horus, the ancient Egyptian sky god).

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What a shame, for the means to be so coldly separated from the ends, for people to find travel so valuable, important or enriching, but to find a certain irrelevancy in the tools that actually get you there.

An old friend of mine, an artist, found my fondness for aircraft to be utterly perplexing. While I could see urbane elegance in the lines of a 747, or a heady significance in the color scheme of a prestigious airline, she analogized airplanes not as works of art themselves, but merely as the painter's brush. The sky was the canvas -- flying, traveling, the journey.

I disagree, for the two indeed are inexorably -- and quite beautifully -- linked.

In an effort to remedy the widespread lack of appreciation for the wonder and beauty of airplanes, the author is more than willing to field questions from readers having to do with any aspect of air travel.

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Here are a few sample responses to some of the more common questions, misconceptions and mysteries of commercial flying. Whether this will encourage a traveler to meditate appreciatively the next time he or she is stuck on a clogged taxiway for 45 minutes, wedged into Row 37, is unknown.

How do heavy metal tubes with tons of passengers and cargo stay in the air?

Ah yes, the semi-whimsical musing that forms the philosophical kernel of every layperson's general curiosity about aerodynamics. But the answer is an easy one: Next time you're driving down the highway in your Honda Accord, stick your hand out the window, parallel to the ground, and "fly" it along like a wing. Bend it upward slightly, and it rises, no? Not getting the Accord off the ground? OK, but now imagine your hand is really, really, big. And imagine the Honda has enough horsepower to go really, really fast. See? It's all in the wing, which is carefully sculpted into an airfoil, and augmented with flaps, slats, slots and other doodads, to maximize lift. Great big wings produce great big amounts of lift. Enough to lift a nearly million-pound 747 off the ground once it hits about 150 knots.

What's a knot?

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A knot is a mile per hour. Except it's a nautical mile, not a statute mile. Nautical miles are slightly longer. And bigger, heavier planes do not necessarily need more knots to take off. The size and lifting capacity of the wing rises roughly in proportion to the size and weight of the plane. And the faster a plane is going, the more lift it is generating. That is why, during takeoff or landing, when the plane is going slowly, the flaps, slats, etc., are deployed. These increase the lifting properties of the wing, but are retracted once you're moving more swiftly.

Our pilot told us we were taking off on Runway 22 at LaGuardia. Are there really 22 runways at the airport?

No. The numbers correspond to the runway's magnetic (compass) orientation. To figure out which way it's pointing, simply add a zero. Runway 22 is pointing 220 degrees, roughly toward the southwest. The opposite end of the same strip would be designated 4 (or 04), pointing 40 degrees (040), or northeasterly. (A directly northbound runway is 36, by the way, not 0 or 00.) When runways are laid in parallel, they are given a letter suffix of "L" or "R" designating left or right.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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