Ask the pilot

Where are all the female pilots? And how do airliners find the runway in the fog?

Published August 30, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

It's been a while since I vented on airport security issues, but mail from readers has me revisiting my own angst over what continues to unfold in terminals everywhere. Not all readers are aware that crewmembers must undergo the same inconveniences (and mortifications) as the public, so while I empathize with your annoyance, you're hauling a weighty load of coals to Newcastle by directing it at a pilot.

Caterers, cleaners, ticket agents and mechanics all are able to bypass the metal detectors on the way to their jobs in the airside (as it's called) zone. Pilots and flight attendants, however, despite our ID tags, must lift our luggage onto the belt, remove our shoes, and hand over our nail clippers with the rest of you. If this seems absurd, well, what can I say, and a discussion of the politics of the situation would find this particular pilot hunched over a 40-page rant, his fingers trembling with frustration. Steps toward universal airside access for all workers are finally being taken, but what cost to privacy this might entail remains to be seen.

What baffles and troubles me most is how we've continued with the post 9/11 pageantry of humiliation and scrap metal confiscation despite the fact everyone considers it farce. The ongoing nonsense seems to underscore our vulnerability by flaunting our refusal to behave rationally. At last, however, airlines have announced they plan to dispense with the inane "Have you received any gifts or packages from strangers?" dialogue on check-in.

A reader says, "I was not allowed to bring my Starbucks coffee through the metal detector without tasting it first. But what if I'd simply filled my shampoo bottle, stowed snugly in my zippered amenities case, full of gasoline?" And for that matter, a shattered wine bottle or dinner plate handed out enroute is no less dangerous than a nail file or corkscrew. To cite specific ironies here is simply too easy, as there are thousands of ways to defeat an already pointless system.

As I've discussed in the past, there are more important things to worry about than sharp objects. Steps are already underway, meanwhile, to extend the deadline for mandatory explosives screening for all checked luggage. This is discouraging, maybe, but while initially lobbying for comprehensive explosives screening, I now wonder if its efficacy is worth the price. What got me thinking was revisiting the story of terrorist Ramzi Yousef. In addition to his links to the 1993 World Trade Center prelude, Yousef masterminded something called "Project Bojinka," a 1994 plot to destroy more than a dozen U.S. airliners on a single day over the Pacific. Yousef was an expert at making hard-to-detect liquid explosives, and in a test run for his Bojinka scheme he deposited a device beneath the seat of a Philippine Airlines 747 flying from Manila to Tokyo. It exploded, killing one passenger. Yousef used a relatively tiny amount of nitroglycerin for his bomb, a substance, in such quantities, basically undetectable by current or proposed methods.

I suggest it's time to address the terrorism issue entirely systemically -- something for diplomats and the State Department to solve while the airlines get back to the business of flying planes in an atmosphere free of hysteria. An ounce ... of prevention is worth a pound of Semtex. Call me a corporate shill, but I don't find it fair, or even useful, to ask the airlines, already strangled by debt, to bog down their resources in a futile attempt to snag any and all dangerous items from people's luggage. Doing so does little to improve safety while driving away passengers and causing hardship for the airlines and their thousands of employees.

Is it true that the U.S. government had advance warning of the bombing of Pan Am 103, but chose not to tell the public?

Sounds like an Internet conspiracy hoax, but in fact this is correct. In early December of 1988 the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, received an anonymous tip stating that a Pan American flight from Frankfurt to New York (PA103 originated in Frankfurt, with a stop in London) would be bombed in the coming weeks. The call was dismissed as a hoax by some, but the U.S. government, while deciding not to publicize the threat, not only warned Pan Am, but even sent notice to its various embassies, presumably so their employees could make alternate travel arrangements. Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21 after takeoff from Heathrow. Until you-know-what, this represented the worst terrorist attack against civilians in U.S. history.

I fly fairly often but I rarely come across female airline pilots. What discourages women from becoming pilots, and is there a culture within the industry that keeps women from flying for the airlines?

I'm unsure what discourages women from becoming pilots in equal number with men, though I suspect they are the same things that discourage them from other male-dominated roles.

That said, I have flown with women pilots both as captain and first officer dozens of times. There are many female airline pilots, to the point where the hiring practices at some airlines have bred resentment among some of their male counterparts. Women are sometimes accepted with fewer qualifications than competing males, which while not necessarily unsafe (all candidates meet minimum requirements and must endure the same training), seems unfair to a male pilot who has struggled to land a job, only to be passed over for someone with a fraction of his experience. This is no different in the controversy department, I suppose, than in various other fields. Certain airlines are more well known (perhaps "notorious" is the right word, depending which disgruntled pilot you're talking to), for recruitment of women aviators than others.

With all this talk of code-sharing between airlines in the news lately, could you explain what, exactly, is a code-share?

Simply put, a code-share is an arrangement whereby an airline sells seats, under its own name, on another carrier's flight.

Waiting in a concourse in Boston one night, a woman walked up to me in a state of obvious fluster trying to find her flight. She was traveling to Amsterdam, she told me, on KLM, and couldn't find her gate. I asked to see her ticket, which sure enough was emblazoned with the familiar powder blue livery of the Dutch airline. The most obvious problem here, though, is that KLM doesn't fly to Boston and never has, despite large lighted signs and announcements on the inter-terminal bus to the contrary. "No," I explained. "You're actually flying on Northwest." Complicating things was the fact her flight operated under two different flight numbers, one each for KLM and Northwest.

Welcome to the world of code-shares, alliances, and partnerships. Virtually all of the world's top-20 carriers are in cahoots with at least one other airline, and many have joined in powerful partnerships of several carriers, with names like Skyteam, Star Alliance, OneWorld, etc. The idea is for the combined route structures to cover as much real estate as possible, and the bigger alliances typically consist of at least one major carrier from each of the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

In some cases partnerships have become, for all practical purposes, single economic entities, as illustrated by a Northwest spokesman who recently commented that it no longer matters, from his company's point of view, whether a passenger flies across the Atlantic on Northwest or KLM.

Carriers are supposed to inform passengers if they're being sold a seat aboard a plane operated by another company. This can be important for those of you squeamish about flying on turboprops or regional jets (not that you have reason to be), whose seats are largely -- often exclusively -- sold via their major airline affiliate. Many of the larger regionals, such as American Eagle, Comair, ASA, and Continental Express, are in fact wholly owned by American, Delta, Continental, etc.

I know a pilot who says he was required to pay for his own training at a regional airline. Could this be true?

This was a fairly common practice during the 1990s, but is much more rare these days. After meeting acceptance standards, pilots at many regional airlines were required to pay upwards of $10,000 or more for their training on a sophisticated turboprop or regional jet, upon completion of which they could then look forward to a starting salary somewhere in the range of $15,000. Suffering for our art, as I touched on in an earlier column, indeed.

So how does a plane find the runway during lousy weather? Those foggy landings always scare me.

The standard procedure for bad-weather approaches is, and has been for decades, something called the Instrument Landing System, or ILS. Essentially, a plane follows two guidance beams, one horizontally and one vertically. Transmitted from antennae on the ground, these guide an airplane along a descending path to the runway with unfailing accuracy. By centering the two beams in a kind of electronic crosshair, either manually (flying an approach by hand), or automatically (the autopilot flies and the pilots monitor), an airplane descends to a certain height -- usually about 200 feet above the ground --- at which the runway must be visible for landing.

Some ILSs are certified for lower-visibility approaches than others, and in certain cases zero-visibility landings are authorized. For these, the airplane and the crew must meet various qualifications. GPS, while in general use for en-route navigation, is still an incipient technology when it comes to bad-weather landings.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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