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Were United's pilots to blame for the airline's failure? And: How worried should we be about the specter of shoulder-launched missiles taking down a domestic jet?

Published December 19, 2002 8:30PM (EST)

Following my article about the bankruptcy of United, it was hardly a matter of minutes before I was hit with questions -- the sentiments of which were, shall we say, loaded -- regarding the role of pilot salaries in the UAL crisis. People have not forgiven United's pilots for the summer of 2000, when during contract talks they instituted a slowdown resulting in thousands of delayed flights. Many found it galling when the pilots were eventually rewarded with the most lucrative contract in history.

But blaming UAL's problems on labor is a cheap shot. Employee wages (on a per-employee basis), including those of pilots, are roughly on par with the other largest carriers, not all of whom, obviously, are in such dire straits. As pointed out in the Wall Street Journal this week, United's customer service record has done much of the damage. United's résumé brims with qualifications that should not be the stuff of Chapter 11: a coveted hub at Tokyo/Narita, valuable landing slots at Heathrow, and a network spanning more of the planet than any U.S. airline. But the flip side of all this real estate and prowess is their perennial ranking at or near the bottom in overall customer service, on-time statistics, and baggage handling.

Since 2000, however, we've been subject to media distortions of the lives of pilots both at UAL and other airlines -- numbers that provide some easy scapegoating. Pilots, according to everyone from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to CSPAN to National Public Radio, are caricatured as hubris-bloated louts making $250,000 a year while, as one letter-writer suggested, "hardly working." Regardless of effects on the bottom line, how accurate is this?

Some senior captains make such large salaries, yes, but these are the top-of-the-pyramid fellows, seniority-wise, and there are relatively few of them. As I've written before, the starting pay at a major airline is about $30,000, and if you're 35 or 40 and just getting started, you have a lot of catching up to do. This catch-up often begins after putting in several years of de-facto apprenticeship at the regional carriers, making poverty-level wages. And as for hardly working, well, maybe you should ask a pilot the next time he pulls in from a trip -- his 10th or 12th consecutive day away from home -- and ask how he feels. Do I think pilots are overpaid? At the top of the industry, yes, probably. But I also believe those nearer the bottom are underpaid. What's needed is middle ground.

In other news, a reader has reported the recent sighting of a Pan Am jet, and takes issue with last week's statement that Pan Am went out of business in December of 1991. "I saw it," she insists. "It was taking off, and it says 'Pan Am' in letters as big a house!"

Is she right? Well, yes and no. The ghost ship she saw was a Boeing 727 owned by the Guilford Transportation Company, which runs an airline based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The name of the airline? Pan Am. The name and trademark were purchased from the estate of the defunct Pan American World Airways, and today the company flies 727s to destinations in Florida, the Northeast and Midwest. Beyond the name, various blue and white superficials, and blasphemous use of the "clipper" radio call sign, there's no connection between this outfit and the original.

Sound strange? Actually this is a second resurrection. Let's call them Pan Am 3. Pan Am 2 operated briefly in the mid-1990s, pulling the same trick and flying A300s from JFK, mainly to Florida, before joining its predecessor on that big tarmac in the sky. There have been other in-name-only precedents as well, most of them short-lived: Braniff 3 followed Braniff 2, and there was a Midway 2 too. Today there are no Braniffs and no Midways, but there is, for now, a Pan Am.

Other names have been reborn not in tribute to legend, but for generic appeal. National Airlines comes to mind. The old National was an East Coast staple for decades before merging with Pan Am in 1980. The new National was a Vegas-based upstart with no connections, either intended or pretended, to the old. They also are gone now.

When USAir -- as it was called at the time -- absorbed Piedmont Airlines and Pacific Southwest Airlines, these brands had been so respected by their customers that a decision was made to keep the names alive. They were assigned to two US Air Express regional affiliates. Suddenly, Pacific Southwest Airlines (recast only as the meaningless acronym "PSA"), found itself based in Ohio, while to this day you can board a "Piedmont" turboprop at any of several airports along the Eastern Seaboard. US Air, meanwhile, which originally had been called Allegheny Airlines, went ahead and assigned the Allegheny name to yet a third Express affiliate.

How worried should we be about shoulder-launched missiles being fired at civilian aircraft? Is there any chance the airlines will install measures to defend against them? And some reports say that if one of these missiles hit a plane, it would not necessarily crash. Is this true?

This has been a hot topic in recent weeks, prompted in part by a Salon article detailing possible, even imminent attacks using these missiles. A threat exists, sure, but a somewhat overstated one. All in all it deserves no more concern than other scenarios, such as the smuggling of bombs or explosives aboard flights.

Technical shortcomings of these missiles also reduce their appeal to terrorists. As one former military pilot puts it: "These things are very unlikely to bring down a commercial jet. They are difficult to use and leave a visible trail, and when fired at short range they are unlikely to achieve full performance in time to score anything other than a close miss. Seagulls flying off the end of the runway present a more likely and effective threat."

It's worth noting that two such rockets were fired at the Arkia 757 taking off from Mombasa in November, and both missed. (And we already did the seagull thing, so don't ask.)

This isn't to say we should ignore the threat because it probably won't cause a crash, but the above points are, at least, a deterrent. Equipping every plane for every conceivable means of attack, meanwhile, would be impractical, expensive, and not entirely effective, so I don't advocate the installation of flares or the redesign of aircraft components. Whether or not a single hit would bring down an airplane depends on a great many things.

What I found most provocative about the Salon piece was the suggestion of these weapons being used domestically. It has been my hunch that any future airliner attack would involve an overseas target. Since U.S. carriers no longer serve any destinations in the Middle East or Africa (with the exception of Tel Aviv), I began to look toward South America and the Caribbean as easier-access targets than Europe or Asia. A domestic shootdown, however, would be a disturbing event indeed.

But I wouldn't lose sleep over it, and I certainly wouldn't recommend driving instead of flying.

Several minutes prior to landing, the cabin crew will often chime in with, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have been cleared to land, so please be sure ..." As a student pilot, it's my understanding that a plane cannot be cleared to land unless there are no other planes on the runway. How can this be true when we're still miles from landing, and how would the flight attendants know?

It's not, and they wouldn't. The cabin crew has no idea when the pilots have been cleared to land -- an event that can occur many miles out, or, in some cases, only seconds prior to touchdown. They use this expression for convenience.

In the meantime, it is not true that a runway must be vacant for a flight to receive landing clearance. Airplanes are cleared to land all the time when arriving or departing flights are still on the strip. It simply means they may go ahead and land without further communication. If the runway is not eventually vacant, the clearance will be canceled.

I notice a hole up under the tail of most airplanes that seems to be for some kind of exhaust. What is this?

That's the exhaust for the auxiliary power unit (APU), which is a small jet engine used for electricity, heating, cooling, etc., when the main engines are not running, or to supplement them. It also provides the compressed air for starting the main engines. All modern jets and even some turboprops have these, and they are typically, but not always, located under the tail.

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

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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