Ask the pilot

Do seat cushions actually save lives? And why don't U.S. airlines fly to Africa?

By Patrick Smith
Published July 26, 2002 4:59PM (EDT)

OK, I admit to a certain cantankerous frustration in last week's column, but I was intentionally being ornery and had to laugh when somebody finally called me on it. The intention wasn't to mock anybody's phobias, as I was only lamenting my lack of qualifications to deal effectively with what I (callously?) called "irrational worries."

And for those of you who thought I was exercising hyperbole in my whine about pilots not making much money: Believe me, there is no shortage of pilots out there ready to offer up handfuls of humiliating W-2 forms proving the absurd wages at many airlines. In 1990, when at age 24 I was hired to fly a $3 million turboprop for the commuter affiliate of a major airline, this pilot's starting salary was $800 a month.

Meanwhile, if you've read my previous columns, even the most squeamish fliers out there might grow bored with my repeated reminders and analogies about the relative safety of flying. As a nod to those annoyed by statistical platitudes -- and being ready to indulge your morbid curiosity -- I'd like to devote an upcoming column to a discussion of past accidents and disasters. Tastefully and constructively, of course. Got a question about TWA 800, the Lockerbie bombing, pilot suicides or other infamous tragedies? Let's confront the reality that crashes sometimes occur, and perhaps a frank, full-immersion talk will quell a few of those same strange fears that so perplexed me last time.

Just prior to touchdown, our flight powered up and aborted the landing. We flew around, banking at much more severe angles than usual, approached a second time, and successfully landed. They said the airport was attempting to squeeze out too many departures. It was very unnerving. Does this happen often and do you think the airline was hiding something?

First of all, nobody was hiding anything. Second, what you experienced was something so nonthreatening that the crew had mostly likely forgotten about it by the time they'd reached the curb outside the terminal. Whether you call them aborted landings, missed approaches or go-arounds, they are nothing to sweat. Now and then, for any of various reasons, spacing between airplanes falls below the minimum requirements and a plane is required to execute the procedure you experienced. This does not, by any stretch, imply that you were close to hitting another plane.

The flying around at severe angles was nothing more than your plane maneuvering to rejoin the approach pattern. A plane being vectored back into a pattern may indeed make a few sharp turns or climb steeply to expedite its cause. Or perhaps it just seemed that way, as your nerves were already frazzled by what you perceived was a dangerous or unusual situation.

I don't like hearing that passengers are so put off by something so innocuous. Your crew owed you more than some folksy spiel about the tower trying to "squeeze out too many departures." I suspect people prefer a more professionally soothing explanation to a down-home shucks-it-was-nuthin'.

I roll my eyes each time the flight attendants go through their life-vest drill. Has anyone ever survived a water landing by donning a vest or using a seat cushion?

Please don't disrespect the cabin crew. (I'm thinking now of the Replacements song, "Waitress in the Sky.") They are forced by regulation to recite the safety briefing, and you should pay attention. My problem isn't with the safety demo itself, but the way it's presented -- a snoozer full of legalspeak and vapid redundancies like "at this time" and "in the event of."

But yes, there have been several instances where passengers have made use of their floatation devices. A recent example is the Ethiopian Airlines 767 that crashed in the Indian Ocean after a hijacking. Additionally, there have been times when aircraft have overshot, undershot, or otherwise parted company with a runway and ended up in the harbor of a coastal airport. So if you're flying from New York to Phoenix and smirk when you hear "water landing," remember that twice since the late 1980s jets went off the end of a runway at LaGuardia and ended up in the bay. There were several survivors in both cases.

Which airlines have the worst reputations for safety and service among pilots? Which are considered "gold standard?"

Let's start with safety. Unless you're planning to fly across central Africa in a Sudanese cargo plane, comparing accident statistics between carriers is, to some extent, splitting hairs. Pilots are more likely to compare pay scales and retirement plans than debate which airlines are safer. No airline's pilots, as a general rule, are any more skilled or talented than another's, though you're likely to get an argument from many experienced pilots who've felt betrayed or left behind due to the women/minorities hiring quotas at some companies.

Many myths and misconceptions exist with regard to the perils of riding on foreign airlines. Rumors that European crews are allowed to drink wine with their meals, for instance, circulate even among pilots. Various overseas airlines are responsible for some dubious blunders, but the unblemished records of many will startle you.

When we get into cabin service, however, everything changes. Service on U.S. carriers, particularly in economy class, is the laughingstock of the airline world. (This may or may not surprise you.) First and business class, at least on international flights, tends to be quite good, but treatment in the back, if you haven't noticed, leaves a little to be desired. To really be comfortable without having to sell the house, one needs to seek out the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates, and other world-class airlines based in Europe and Asia. I remember Thai Airways offering me a full hot meal, complete with steaming towel and a flower, on a 60-minute domestic flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Such companies can't help you, however, if you're flying from Pittsburgh to Denver.

As if the airlines' fare structures and fine print aren't complicated enough, they've now taken to blurring the distinction between classes. Airlines like Delta and Continental no longer offer a first-class cabin on many international runs, opting for a jazzed-up business class instead. It's better than any domestic first class, but it lacks the prestige of what's become the international standard on long-haul services (that is, fully flat beds and other luxurious extravagances). Continental even came up with something called, in all possible befuddlement, "Business First."

Is it true no U.S. airline flies to Africa?

For now, no U.S. passenger carrier flies to any destination in Africa, nonstop or otherwise. The last to do so was Delta, which operated a short-lived route from JFK to Cairo, suspended in 2001. TWA also flew this route for many years. In earlier times, Pan Am offered service to places like Nairobi, Monrovia, Lagos, and Johannesburg. Today, U.S. carriers fly passengers to Africa via their European partner airlines. By contrast, a handful of African carriers currently fly to the U.S., mostly to JFK.

While the bigger U.S. airlines carry half a billion or so passengers annually -- far more so than any other nation -- the intercontinental networks of its airlines can seem skimpy compared with those of Europe or Asia. To an extent, they have come to concentrate in particular geographic regions. Northwest and United are big across the Pacific, for example, while Delta concentrates on Western Europe. Down south, American is the biggest player in Latin America. This specialization is frequently the result of previous mergers and hand-me-down routes. In Latin America, Pan Am, Eastern and Braniff were the trailblazers. Braniff once ran a hub from Lima, Peru. As these entities failed, their networks were sold or passed on.

What is the longest scheduled nonstop flight in the world?

It depends if you're talking time or mileage. Attempts to answer this question are bound to be met with bickering over a few kilometers or minutes, so I'll take the easy way out: The longest flights have included Chicago-Hong Kong (United), Newark-Hong Kong (Continental) and JFK-Johannesburg (South African Airways). The Boeing 747, 777, and Airbus A340 are all common equipment on ultra-long-range routings.

I have experienced the JFK-Johannesburg route myself, as a passenger on South African's flight "Springbok" 202 (to borrow their radio call-sign), and can attest to the ride of 14 hours and 46 minutes being less uncomfortable than you'd expect. Annoyingly, a digital timer bolted to the bulkhead and triggered by a retraction of the landing gear gave a minute-by-minute rundown of our flight time. Watching the hours tick by was a torturous proposition, until a certain passenger was bold enough to tape a piece of paper over the clock.

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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