Ask the pilot

What happens when you drop dry ice into an airplane toilet? And are regional pilots just rejects from the big airlines?

By Patrick Smith

Published September 20, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

All right, so I outlined the workings of airline code-shares, but to at least one reader's dismay I neglected to address the terminology itself. Code-share? The "code" refers to an airline's specific two-letter identifier assigned by IATA, the International Air Transport Association. IATA is a trade organization comprising hundreds of airlines around the globe. Every airline has an IATA code. In the cases of our Big Three, for example, they are UA, AA, and DL. These are technically part of every flight number, though in the United States we routinely drop the letters. Flying Air France's Concorde from JFK to Paris, for instance, your trip is AF001. In a code-share situation, a specific flight is split among two or more airlines and their respective prefix designators.

To make it as confusing as possible, the number part will also vary. Delta's flight DL8718 might also operate as Air France's flight AF718. Same plane, different flight number (notice the 8 is dropped). If you're confused about which airline you're actually flying on, always look at the lower number. In the above example, Delta might have sold you a ticket, but Air France will be serving the coffee.

Everyone with me?

Meanwhile, in last week's discussion of reverse thrust, I made this simple parenthetical statement: "(No, neither jets nor turboprops will reverse during flight.)" I wanted to avoid an in-depth discussion of the matter, but yes, as assorted nitpickers so ardently pointed out, airplanes can reverse in flight. Sure, just as your Honda can drive backward down the interstate. My point was that an airliner will not do so as a matter of routine. Most all planes have the apparatus to prohibit an inadvertent reversal in flight. At least one model, though, the old Douglas DC-8, was authorized to reverse its engines (inboard only) while aloft.

In 1991 a Boeing 767 operated by Lauda Air, a highly regarded Austrian charter company, suffered an uncommanded inflight reversal of its left engine after takeoff from Bangkok. The airplane crashed into the Thai jungle, killing more than 200 people. Boeing later redesigned the thrust reverse system.

Are the pilots of commuter planes castaways from the big airlines, and not skilled enough to fly jets? Or are they simply building experience?

The pilots at the commuter (now called "regional") level tend to be younger (though not always) and less experienced (though not always) than those at the majors, and many see their job as a steppingstone. But putting it that way leads one to believe a regional pilot lacks the skill to fly a big jet. And that's simply not true. Everything depends on the hiring trends. Moving on depends less on a pilot's aggregate experience than on the number of jobs available at the bigger airlines.

In a lot of ways, flying at the regionals is much more demanding than at the majors. And the airplanes are, in many cases, no less sophisticated. Smaller, yes. Quaint, no. Schedules can be quite demanding, and the pay humiliating. I know because I flew regional turboprops for the better part of seven years. I entertained thoughts of spending a whole career in that realm, as many do, but the lure of a decent salary, an easier lifestyle, and more glamorous destinations was too enticing. All told, it took about 15 years from the day I received my private pilot's license to the day I was hired by a large carrier. For some it comes much quicker, for others never at all.

Working conditions at the regionals are improving. Today, a six-figure income is not unusual for a senior captain at companies like American Eagle or Comair, and increasing numbers of pilots are staying put.

Watching a regional jet come in to land one morning, I noticed the landing gear hadn't been lowered. I even uttered, "Hey, gear down, buddy!' Finally, not more than 100 feet off the ground the plane went into a bank before going around for another try. Do pilots sometimes forget important things like, well, landing gears? Might this have been a case of not following procedures?

If you'd told me it was a small private plane you had seen, I wouldn't have been all that surprised (see my comments on general aviation from a few weeks ago). But what I suspect you witnessed was some sort of training flight -- the jet making what's called a "low approach" with its gear retracted intentionally. It would be extremely difficult for an airline crew to land with its wheels up, and I doubt the plane would've gotten as close to the runway as you describe without the automatic warning systems kicking in. There are lights and buzzers that alert you to a lack of gear deployment, dependent on things like thrust setting, altitude, and wing-flap position.

I'm intrigued by the three-letter codes for airports. Where do they come from? Many seem to make no sense (MCO for Orlando?).

The three-letter abbreviations you speak of are IATA abbreviations. There also are four-letter abbreviations devised by ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), a branch of the United Nations, but those are used only for navigation and technical purposes.

Many of the seemingly arbitrary ones are carry-overs from former airport names. MCO is derived from McCoy Field, the original name for Orlando International. O'Hare's identifier, ORD, pays tribute to the old Orchard Field. Or they can be geographic associations, some more obscure than others: In Rio de Janeiro your plane will land at Galeão, on Governor's Island (Ilha do Governador), leading to the code GIG.

Other examples are fairly intuitive, such as LHR (London Heathrow) or KIX (Osaka, Kansai International), while a few are completely mysterious. Can anyone tell me why Maui uses OGG?

So how much does an airliner cost, exactly?

The prices of airplanes vary tremendously. Would you believe over $165 million for a single new Airbus A340 or Boeing 777? Or more than $55 million for a new 737? But an old 727 to be rebuilt as a freighter might run $5 million or less. The cost differs with age, systems upgrades, etc. A lot depends on the engine (how long before an overhaul is due?), which can sell for millions. The little commuter planes none of you can stand also are multimillion-dollar machines, and you can keep that in mind the next time you're walking up the stairs and cracking a joke about rubber bands.

Airlines often do not own their planes, but rather lease them from banks and leasing companies, making regular payments not unlike the way you'd make payments on a car. How else could carriers operating hundreds of airplanes afford so many?

The airlines have been pushing the purchase of a second ticket so that infants may ride in car seats. But I can't find any statistics on the number of babies injured on airplanes. All I find is a rather flowery and often repeated statement: "The coffeepot is more secure than an infant." Is this just a scam to sell more tickets?

When a baby is injured, it's normally the result of a serious accident, and he or she is not the only one. Thus, I don't know if separate statistics are compiled for infants.

If you want to play the lottery and hold your infant in your lap, well, that's your call. Your ability to do so is, in a way, a touching bit of libertarian freedom in an otherwise hyper-regulated environment, and it is very unlikely that something will happen.

But is it safe, inherently? No. In fact it's extremely dangerous, and it's tough to swallow that on one hand the FAA demands carry-ons to be stowed securely, yet allows human infants to be unrestrained. Their logic says that parents might opt to drive rather than fly if forced to buy an extra seat, and the overall number of deaths would rise through traffic accidents. Instead you are given the option of purchasing that seat.

To the airlines, an infant in a car seat and occupying a cushion is a passenger like anyone else, and does not deserve a free ride. This is a fair argument. It's been suggested they offer a row of bulkhead-mounted safety seats for infants, available for a smaller fee than a standard ticket. But then you have the matter of unattended infants during takeoffs and landings (liability trouble), and the potential for havoc during an evacuation (passengers rushing to grab their kids).

What is the most embarrassing thing you ever did as a pilot?

Well, this is something I once described in article for Airways magazine: While a crewmember one night aboard a cargo jet, I'd gone to the galley to get myself a Diet Coke. Clearing out the cooler, I mistook a block of dry ice for regular ice and threw it down the toilet. Now, to combine dry ice, which is frozen carbon dioxide, with any sort of liquid is to initiate a turbulent and rather unstoppable reaction, not unlike dumping water into boiling oil, or mixing vinegar with baking soda. Except, in this case, on a much, much grander scale than you can imagine.

After dispatching the block of CO2 I heard a deep and powerful burble, which seemed to emanate from somewhere in the bowels of the plane. It was similar to the sound your own innards might make if you've eaten an entire pizza or, perhaps, swallowed Drano.

When I turned and looked, the toilet had for all practical purposes disappeared, and where it once rested I now saw what can best be described as a vision. In place of the commode there roared a Technicolor volcano of bubbling blue toilet fluid thrusting waist-high into the air and, subsequently, all over my pants, shoes, and into every corner and crevice of the airplane's floor.

It took several minutes before the geyser of blue foam at last abated, and to this day the soles of my black Rockports are stained a lovely azure.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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