Ask the pilot

How could a pilot not be trained for fog landings? And how is "Jet Smarter" author Diana Fairechild like Ralph Nader with a tray of peanuts?

By Patrick Smith

Published September 27, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

I've been asked from time to time what I think of Diana Fairechild and her book "Jet Smarter," a bestselling exposé of sorts that takes the airlines to task over various safety and comfort issues. Fairechild was a flight attendant for many years at United and Pan Am, and in her book and through her Web site she assumes the role of consumer advocate, a kind of Ralph Nader with a tray of peanuts and small bottles of Evian. But while I'd be willing to vote for Nader, I can't navigate around Fairechild's site without suffering alternating pangs of annoyance and confusion.

Fairechild was, in some ways, an inspiration for this very column, but she and I have taken different tacks in our how-it's-done explanations. Here's a promo clip from her site, the sensationalist tone of which will give you some idea of things 

"There are dangers in air travel, some obvious, many hidden. And the oxygen is inadequate -- pilots get ten times more than passengers. Pesticides are sprayed on seats, on luggage and sometimes right on passengers. Radiation for frequent flyers equals that of atomic energy workers."

Several of Fairechild's peeves are somewhat valid, such as the levels of exposure to radiation (more a problem for crews than passengers, especially on longer-distance flights at high latitudes), but at least a few of her statements are entirely disingenuous. Her shock-jock manner of addressing issues -- "The air in commercial jets is toxic," for example -- is manipulative and does nothing to enhance her credibility.

Fairechild makes a big stink (pun?) about cabin air quality, something I've addressed in this column. Now, nobody maintains that the air in a jetliner's pressurized fuselage is akin to a fresh autumn breeze, just as nobody would say the same about a crowded movie theater or classroom.

But she goes too far. She makes the provocative claim that "pilots receive ten times more oxygen than passengers." What she might mean is that more supplemental (extra) oxygen is carried for the crew in case of emergency. But that in no way means that the passengers do not have enough, either during normal flight or for those times when things go wrong and the dangling masks are needed.

Then in the same paragraph she states that some airlines actually require their pilots to sniff pure oxygen before landing! When I read that my mouth fell open in bewilderment, and I began to understand the propagation of myths like the one in which pilots intentionally skimp on O2 in the cabin to save fuel. Some crews are asked to briefly use their masks when landing at high-altitude airports, but that's hardly normal procedure. Her erroneous implication, however, is one of danger.

When various pilots complained that Fairechild had no idea what she was talking about, she responded by pulling quotes and technical specs from the operations manual of the Boeing 747-200. All airplanes, of course, work differently, and in 2002 the number of 747-200s still in passenger service can be counted on one hand, but this is offered as proof of her initial claim. Readers not intimate with commercial aviation might be easily swayed by this impressive-sounding evidence. You can read both the pilots' protests and Fairechild's oddly proud rebuttals at her site.

The idea that a flight attendant would attempt to inform pilots how their cockpits do and don't work ought to be telling enough. It seems her tactic is to take one or two specific instances and present them as truths applying to all airplanes and situations, which is bunk.

Fairechild is, I believe, now retired from the industry. But passengers who encountered her onboard their flights to Europe and Asia should have been quick to request a grain of salt with their coffee.

Why do our red-eye flights always go westbound and not the other way? And why do all flights to Europe depart in the evening and land in the morning?

The red-eye departures leave West Coast cities in the late evening (around 10 or 11 p.m.) and arrive on the East Coast at sunrise. In order to land on the West Coast at sunrise, however, a plane would need to take off from an Eastern city at around 3:30 a.m. There would not be a large market for this service. (Leaving the East Coast at 11 p.m., we'd be landing out West at about 2 a.m. Same story.) It's a function of the time change, and thus it's impossible to run a true red-eye going west in which you depart in the evening and arrive in the morning.

From the United States to Europe, almost all flights are red-eyes because morning landings allow passengers to connect onward. A large number of people are bound for intra-European, African, or Middle Eastern destinations and are merely transiting the first arrival city. After touching down, a plane sits briefly, changes crews and supplies, and then re-crosses the Atlantic, getting back to the States in the afternoon and allowing plenty of time for connections. This system makes for a very effective utilization of the aircraft and is convenient for most passengers.

There are a few daylight flights to Europe. Leaving New York or Boston in the morning, a British Airways flight will get you to London by about 8 p.m.

My flight the other morning was nearly empty. The airlines complain that they make money only when flights are full, so why, when a plane is carrying hardly any people, don't they cancel the flight?

Airplanes don't simply fly back and forth between the same two cities. If a flight from San Diego to Dallas is empty, it can't be canceled without affecting the whole system. That airplane may be destined, later in the day, for Philadelphia or Newark or Miami, or might be needed at a station for maintenance procedures. Every flight is part of a vast puzzle. Hundreds of airplanes are at work simultaneously, and the airlines use complicated algorithms to coordinate them.

Meanwhile, occupancy is not necessarily a good gauge of revenue. In recent months, lower fares have required very high loads (or, to use industry parlance, "load factor") just to break even, but on certain routes even an underbooked flight can still be a profitable one. On international flights, premium fares in first and business class are the moneymakers, while those in coach represent little more than filler. And down below, there are often many thousands of pounds of valuable mail and freight.

A British newspaper recently told the story of a flight forced to divert because the pilot wasn't trained to land in fog. The passengers panicked when the pilot announced that he hadn't been trained. How could this be true?

And several years ago, a flight taxiing for departure in foggy weather returned to the gate and the flight attendant announced, "We apologize, but the pilot does not have enough experience to take off."

Both of these examples (the former case was reported in the U.K. tabloid Sun) involve complicated situations that were taken out of context and dumbed down into preposterous-sounding scenarios.

Runway visibility is measured using something called RVR (runway visual range). A series of light-sensitive machines provide visibility values in feet or meters. When visibility drops below certain parameters, pilots must perform so-called Category 2 or Category 3 approaches. Such conditions happen rarely, and as a result not all airplanes are certified to perform them, and not all pilots are qualified to fly them. In fact, a relatively small number of runways even allow such approaches. In the British case, conditions called for a Category 3 approach. Many airplanes, not just this one, had in all likelihood been forced to divert. (If, during taxi, you spot a strange-looking airport sign that says "Cat II," it's referring to the runway hold-line that airplanes must observe when Category 2 approaches are in progress.)

For departures it works similarly. When takeoff visibility drops to certain levels, the runway, the airplane, and the pilots all must meet various requirements. Our hapless flight attendant was technically correct that her pilot lacked the needed "experience," but summarizing the situation using such simple language was misguided.

I noticed a successive arrangement of signs along the edge of the runway. Each sign featured a single digit, and these went in order: 9, 8, 7, 6, and so on. Is this some kind of distance marking?

Yes, these signs indicate the distance remaining, measured in thousands of feet. If you're departing on a typical 10,000-foot strip, expect to see a 4 or 5 zipping by as you leave the payment. That depends, however. I remember a takeoff once in a 727 from the airport in Cuzco, Peru, high in the Andes. The "2" sign went past my window in a blur while the tires were still firmly on the ground. But don't fret, as takeoff distances are calculated prior to every departure to ensure adequate distance not only for taking off, but for stopping should something occur.

Runway striping can also be used to measure distance, but this usually isn't visible from the cabin. The various signs and markings strewn about the airport can seem baffling to a passenger. The section of the Aeronautical Information Manual covering such markings features 27 pages of diagrams and explanations.

My least favorite part of flying is takeoff. Then, during early climb, the engine thrust is suddenly cut and it feels like the plane is suddenly falling backwards. What is happening here? It seems like a poor time to ease back on thrust.

As I've mentioned, takeoff is the most precarious point of flight. More fingernails are chewed during landings, I suppose, but in deference to the laws of gravity and momentum, this anxiety is somewhat misplaced. If you insist on being nervous, liftoff is your moment. The airplane is making that transition from earth to sky, and its grip on the latter is tentative in those first few seconds. However, even a dying engine should not cause havoc here, as planes are certified for takeoff with a power plant failing at the worst possible moment, but inherently it's the most critical time.

But yes, engine thrust is routinely cut back during the initial climb. The amount used for takeoff itself is, in the interests of safety and performance, more than enough, and so it's lessened once aloft to save wear on the engines. In any case it would be rather impractical to go climbing through ten thousand feet at takeoff thrust. The exact moment of the reduction depends on the airplane and the respective "profile" being flown. The plane is still climbing, don't worry, and is not decelerating nearly as much as it may feel.

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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