Ask the pilot

Can we stop bombs in our baggage? And, how do pilots amuse themselves at 30,000 feet?

Published January 13, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Is everybody enjoying our new baggage procedures? Initially, troubled by our inaction after Lockerbie and spellbound by the near-catastrophic audacity of the foiled Bojinka scheme, I was beating the drum for comprehensive explosives screening. But now the somewhat haphazard application of what is still an emerging, imperfect technology leaves me uneasy and increasingly ambivalent about the idea of ever implementing a fully effective program.

The CTX devices now deployed, which operate similarly to CAT scanners, were decided on after much administrative wrangling over which system, or combination of systems, would be best. Their level of protection is high, but they are not infallible. Moreover, with our anxiety pinballing from hijackings to bombs to the specter of shoulder-launched missiles, one is reminded of the more or less unstoppable, hit-em-where-they-ain't resourcefulness of terrorism.

And hopefully you kept those cheddar logs and fruitcakes out of the Samsonite during your holiday travels; reportedly the density of such delectables can set the scanners ringing. Cake and cheese now join handguns, oxidizers, fireworks and compressed gasses on the list of items best left at home, and will ensure continued episodes of lunacy at the nation's airports. Terminal madness, you could say, in more ways than one.

Still, I suppose, the madness and hassles should diminish over time.

What might not diminish, however, is the financial hemorrhaging of the major airlines. Making a bad situation much worse, what's even less fair than the banning of Cracker Barrel from suitcases, is the government's insistence that the airlines foot the bill for nearly all of the newly introduced safety regulations, from the barricading of flight-deck doors to the $1 million-apiece CTX machines.

The Air Transport Association puts the security tab at $10 billion in the next year alone. That's an interesting number, since it's roughly equal to the total loan guarantees the government has conditionally offered the carriers, most of which, I might add, has not been doled out and may never be. It also matches the value of wage concessions given up thus far at United and US Airways, the two airlines currently flying under the strains and stigma of Chapter 11.

Costs, of course, are passed on to the traveler. Passengers frequently remark they are willing to part with a few more dollars in the interest of safety. A well-intended sacrifice, sure, but you are paying enough already, trust me. The taxes, extras and fees added to airline tickets can be upwards of a quarter to half of the total price, depending on fare. Percentage-wise, they are often more than twice those carried by tobacco, firearms or alcohol -- products carrying so-called sin taxes meant to dissuade use. Whether you realize it or not, a click of the buy button at Travelocity or Orbitz will subject your credit card to most -- or all -- of the following:

  • government ticket tax: 7.5 percent
  • frequent flyer tax: 7.5 percent
  • domestic flight segment tax: $3
  • security surcharge: $2.50 to $10
  • passenger facility charge: $4.50 to $18.00
  • jet fuel tax: 4.3 cents per gallon
  • fuel fee: 1 cent per gallon
  • international departure tax: $18
  • international arrival tax: $13.20
  • Customs fee: $5
  • INS user fee: $7
  • cargo waybill tax: 6.25 percent

    And now a $20-per-head air carrier security fee has been proposed.

    While the airlines gasp for life and thousands of employees have been fired or laid off, this one included, many people nonetheless voice revulsion at the suggestion of giving loans to the airlines. To what extent this is based on adherence to an economic principle, versus general dislike and distrust of the airlines themselves, I cannot say, though I've worked hard to educate people on myths and misunderstandings pertaining to the latter. In any case, you're almost right, for the loans might not be needed if the above taxes and fees weren't so bloody overwhelming.

    A frequently encountered criticism is that the airline business is a subsidized industry. What this supposed subsidy pertains to is unclear to me. If 100 million people patronize a single major airline in a given year, each chipping in his share of the dollars just listed, it seems there's more than enough cash on hand to keep the runways smoothly paved, the windows in the control towers gleaming brightly.

    When the government authorized a 10-year, $190 billion farm bill, did Salon readers dash off spiteful e-mails to soybean growers? Somebody even asked me if I was proud of myself for "helping to destroy the environment in my pollutant-spewing machine." No mention was made of the wasteful irrigation methods often used by those darn subsidized farmers. I take it the somber green graces of agriculture are assumed more earnest than the cowboy coarseness of flying airplanes.

    Or no? But for the record, fossil fuel use by commercial aviation, worldwide, is less than 5 percent of the total, and most newer jetliners are significantly more fuel-efficient per passenger mile than your average SUV.

    A recent edition of the Economist refutes your earlier statement on the usefulness of life jackets and rafts. They state, "No large airliner has ever made an emergency landing on water."

    In December 2002, in a credibility-stretching discussion of "the realities of air safety," the Economist quoted a Mr. Jackson of Jane's All the World's Aircraft who made that comment, though who knows what the full context might have been. While you can argue the definition of "large," or "landing," this is untrue, as there have been several instances of airliners having found themselves, through one mishap or another, in lake, river, or sea. At least a few of these, including the 1970 ditching of a DC-9 in the Caribbean, and an Aeroflot ditching near Leningrad, were controlled impacts resulting in few or no fatalities.

    The Economist continues, "So the life jackets, with their little whistles and lights that come on when in contact with water, have little purpose other than to make passengers feel better." The various accoutrements of the onboard floatation devices might indeed be a bit of overkill, but this unctuous remark also is false. In the above cases and others, vests and rafts were put to good use by passengers who needed them.

    One thing to remember if you're ever in such a situation and have, as will be the case, not paid attention to the safety briefing prior to takeoff: never inflate your vest while still inside the plane, despite the temptation to do so. When an Ethiopian Airlines 767 ditched near the Comoros Islands, the cabin broke apart, filled with water, and several passengers with pre-inflated vests were unable to move freely and escape beneath the rising water. The vests are designed to provide some buoyancy even if punctured, so if you're unconscious and haven't yet pulled the cord to discharge the little CO2 cylinder, you'll still float with your head above the surface.

    The same Economist article proposed the idea of pilotless planes. Is such a concept really viable?

    Right around the corner, with lawyerless courtrooms and doctorless hospitals. We already have machines that help with certain operations, so how far can we be from having a computer do the whole thing?

    While I probably have a vested interest in debunking this as so much sci-fi speculation, that's not the issue. Some will argue that much of the idea is already within the realm of existing technology, and that's true, but much is not nearly enough, and the realm of things feasible is a different matter. For pilotless flying to become routine would be a huge -- and hugely expensive -- undertaking with many, many years of research. If you'll allow me to get juvenile for a minute: It's hard enough to get the little trams that take you around Dallas-Fort Worth or Atlanta to work right, and they're on tracks. Throw in two more dimensions, weather and congestion.

    Call me a Luddite, but do I foresee the day? At least not until the government is run by computers and robots (which would probably be an improvement right now).

    What do pilots do up there for eight or 10 hours at a time? Or 12? Or 15?

    Pilots often ask the same of passengers. Equipped with big windows, adjustable chairs and armrests that don't require property deeds, it's much less claustrophobic than sitting in coach. And when you think about it, sitting in a cockpit for 8 or 10 hours isn't much different from sitting at a desk and computer screen for the same length of time. As added bonuses, you get free food and a nice view.

    Unnecessary conversation is banned below 10,000 feet, but as you'd expect most of the flight's more leisurely stretches are taken up by conversation with your fellow crewmember(s). Pilots aren't always best friends, but often a little ideological clashing -- say, oh, I don't know, an old punk rocker from Boston paired with a Promise Keeper from Kansas for six Atlantic crossings -- is the perfect repose.

    Even during straight-and-level segments in the middle of the night, however, the flight deck can be surprisingly bustling. There are reports to make via radio or satellite link, navigational waypoints to program, check, and double-check, systems to monitor, and various enroute (and later arrival) procedures to preprogram and verify.

    When a pilot needs a lav break he takes one. If he wants to stretch, he gets up and does so. On long-haul flights there are supplemental pilots who will relieve the original crew, allowing them to sleep or otherwise relax. Many larger aircraft are equipped with crew bunks both for pilots and flight attendants, while others have designated cabin seats for use during rest periods.

    How does one operate the emergency doors on an airplane? Could some crazy person open them in flight?

    Obviously many people don't pay attention to the flight attendants or read the briefing cards, which explain in detail how to work the doors. You should know how to do this. But in midflight, no, the doors won't open. That goes for the smaller emergency hatches and the main exits.

    The hatches, usually found over the wings, are restricted by the outward-pushing forces of the pressurized fuselage. Like a drain plug they always open inward, and a person would not be capable of overcoming these forces until the aircraft is depressurized. The larger cabin doors are more complicated. Some operate manually, others mechanically. Secured by a series of locks, they also are subject to outward-acting pressure as in the case of the hatches, and/or sensors that do not allow movement while the plane is pressurized.

    You'll notice that on the flat, shelf portion of the door -- so alluring as a resting spot while waiting for the lav -- it often says DO NOT SIT. While I wouldn't recommend it, you could probably sit there all day jiggling the handle to your heart's content without causing havoc, though you might break the pressurized seal causing some horrendous noise, or set off a warning light interrupting the captain's breakfast. The other reason they don't want you sitting there is to avoid messing with the inflatable escape slide that lives inside the lower door structure.

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

    This story has been corrected.

  • By Patrick Smith

    Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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