Ask the pilot

What's the worst-named airline of all time: Russia's Kras Air or Taiwan's U-Land Airlines? Plus: The pilot tests his fans with his second reader quiz.

Published May 16, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Following last week's livery critique, several of you were disappointed that I wasn't more critical of the ruination of the Northwest Airlines "NW" logo. Here is the airline's prior look, and here again is the new one, carrying the disgracefully bastardized compass badge. "You were too kind," claimed a reader from Finland. Calling it a meaningless abstraction apparently wasn't harsh enough. Another said of the revision, "It's typical of the ongoing degradation of corporate branding, which shoots for the lowest common denominator of mass appeal."

There is nothing disgracefully unattractive about the new logo (and the soda can fuselage is quite sleek, an improvement from the sticky red and gray). The issue isn't the logo itself, but how shameful it was to usurp the prior one, which was not only more handsome, but brilliantly clever and effective. Also noted: The compass arrow no longer points toward the northwest when seen on the left side of the tail. It simply points. As I said, meaningless. Which alone wouldn't be so terrible, if only it weren't such a devolved incarnation of the mark it replaces.

Such a pity. The only bigger shame, perhaps, is Japan Airlines' abandonment of its own exquisite trademark, the JAL crane. The new red tail -- a kind of Rising Splotch -- and effete hashmark are truly revolting. I haven't been this disappointed since the U.S. Postal Service retired the bald eagle and supplanted it with that ugly monster bird (it's actually the excerpted head and neck of the original).

I don't get it. The New York Yankees have worn the same pinstriped uniforms and logo -- designed by Tiffany, I'm told -- since the days of Ruth and Gehrig, and neither their reputation nor bottom line has suffered. On the contrary, they have bred recognition and respect.

It also was brought to my attention that the Alaska Airlines tail mascot is not the visage of an indigenous Alaskan, but is supposed to be, um, Old Man Winter. This according to the company, at least, though I'm not buying the revisionism. He's also rumored to be a portrait of Johnny Cash. But let's not get a controversy going or they're liable to change the face entirely. Since the airline is actually based in Seattle, we could end up with Kurt Cobain or Bill Gates up there. (Readers with Photoshop, there's your cue.) In any case he's not the problem. The fixation belongs on Alaska's frightful fuselage writing. If you ever tried composing the word "Alaska" on an Etch-a-Sketch, that is what you'd come up with.

Some of you remembered the old PSA smile. California-based Pacific Southwest Airlines, eventually absorbed by US Airways, used to apply smile decals to the noses of its jets. It was a reserved, ambivalent kind of smile that didn't get under your skin -- as if each plane were expressing contentment simply at being a plane. (Old Man Inuit is smiling too, you'll notice, but I don't trust him.) You might be interested to learn the PSA name has been retained by US Airways and assigned to one of their commuter affiliates ... in Ohio. Deserves a frown if you ask me.

And yes, I have seen Southwest's killer whale 737, Shamu, and all the similar novelties gracing aircraft around the world. There has been no shortage of jetliners painted up to commemorate, if you will, everything from consumer products to airline alliances to the Olympics. Some are fun, others are hideous. We could have done without Delta's Power Puff, or All Nippon's Pokémon, but the spirit is usually enjoyable, at least in moderation. One of the nicest was an Aborigine-inspired Qantas 747 called "Nalanji Dreaming," while among the worst have been America West's unintelligible Arizona Diamondbacks promotion and TWA's "Wings of Pride," a garish motivational tribute "sponsored by the employee owners of TWA."

And if you recall my opinion that the most recent British Airways livery makes its jets look like giant cans of Pepsi, well, maybe you should see this.

By the mid-1990s this concept finally crossed an inevitable threshold, exploited to boorish perfection by short-lived Western Pacific Airlines, whose "logojets," decorated with ads like a public bus, flew on behalf of casinos, hotels and even network television. Calder represented the verve and style of Braniff in the 1970s; half-nude cowgirls were the debased colors of air travel by 1997 (aircraft paint contains silicone, yes).

Western Pacific is gone, but I have a strange feeling we haven't seen the last of the flying billboards. See, what'd I tell you. And there's likely more to come.

This topic can get us going in all sorts of directions. We could do flight attendants, for example. Anyone up for electronic centerfolds of SIA's "Singapore Girls," or Southwest's 1973 leather boots and hot pants? We could survey in-flight food (those wraps on American are very good, but Lufthansa once gave out ceramic jars of pickled herring), or maybe salute a few of the more absurd airline advertising campaigns. Does anyone remember National Airlines and its 1970s "Fly Me" ads? "I'm Joyce. Fly Me to Miami." They were almost as controversial as the Coppertone girl.

How about the best and worst airline names of all time? None of us has any idea what an "AirTran" is, but it could be a lot worse. We have, for instance, Russia's Kras Air, always just an H away from infamy. Or, even better -- and I need to include a picture or you won't believe me -- Taiwan's now defunct U-Land Airlines. That's right. U-buy, U-fly, and U-land it yourself.

Anyway, since we've been so interactive lately, I think it's time for another quiz to see what you've learned all these months.

A while back, my table-turning reader quiz was a smashing success. Hundreds of people e-mailed from all over the country to tell me that TWA was the largest airline in the world and that Peter Max, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring (pick one) once painted the exterior of a Braniff 727. You all got an A for effort, and one or two people even knew the real answers.

Salon promised a Premium subscription to the winner, but he already had one. With a prize like that left over, we'd be crazy not to give it another shot. And this time we're offering not only the Premium, but also a free, autographed copy of the Ask the Pilot book, whenever the publisher gets around to publishing it.

If the winner happens to be female, she also will receive a "dream date" dinner for two with the author at the airport concourse restaurant of her choice. We're going Dutch, since neither Patrick Smith nor Salon is rolling in cash right now, so take it easy. Maybe a slice (no toppings) at Sbarro, or some quick clam chowder here in Boston. If you're a guy, well, you get my personal thumbs-up and a $5 coupon valid toward any purchase at an airport Tie Rack.

Your work is cut out for you. The following test is considerably harder than the first one, and it challenges not so much your aeronautical mettle as your attention to my column. Since being laid off, I'm thinking about becoming a cult leader, and my ego needs to know I have devotees who pay attention. (Unlike Jim Jones, I plan to avoid both mass suicide and a shootout scene at an airport in South America.)

Yes, what follows is the ultimate exercise in gluttonous self-infatuation. But you (meaning me) deserve it. Many of the questions require a level of intimacy with prior columns, while the rest depend on knowledge, skill and perhaps the gods of Google. Answers must be received by Friday, May 30.

1. What famous piece of music accompanied United Airlines' television commercials during much of the 1990s?

2. What is the aerodynamic name for the upward canting of a jetliner's wings?

3. The title of what 1983 Hüsker Dü record was depicted on a greasy T-shirt I once owned?

4. What was the name of the KLM 747 that crashed at Tenerife in 1977 as part of the worst-ever aviation accident?

5. Which West African city -- and airport -- did I visit in November 2002?

6. The pinkish liquid used to de-ice airplanes is a mixture of what liquids?

7. The Pilot once destroyed the lavatory aboard what type of airplane?

8. What is the name of my ex-girlfriend who became seasick in the Greek Islands in 1992?

9. What airliners are depicted in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Decalog," Part IV?

10. What is the registration number (or letters) depicted on the die-cast replica of the Air India 747 that I purchased in Miami in March 2003?

11. In one sentence, why are you asked to raise your window shades during takeoff and landing?

12. In one sentence, what is wind shear?

13. In one sentence, tell me I'm your favorite Salon columnist.

14. Architect Eero Saarinen designed terminals at what two airports?

15. Who wrote "Poem for Karl Wallenda -- Aerialist Supreme"?

16. The captain of American Airlines flight 11 was not only a pilot but also a farmer who did philanthropic work among the immigrant Cambodian community of New England. What was his name?

17. What foods should you not pack in your luggage, as the scanning machines at airports can mistake them for explosives?

18. Five airplanes were seized by terrorists in the Black September hijackings of 1970. Name the airlines whose planes were involved.

19. Getachew, Abera, and Theodros are pilots for what airline?

20. What famous baseball player once flew his own airplane -- decorated with his name -- from game to game in the 1940s?

Ten-Point Bonus Question: You won't find this answer in any of my columns, but I'll be immensely impressed by anyone who knows or can find it. In the movie "Dog Day Afternoon" (my favorite film when I was a kid), Al Pacino is captured and handcuffed in a scene that unfolds at Kennedy Airport. In the background is a noisily idling jetliner, which Pacino thought would be his getaway plane. Name it -- both the airline and the model. (Hint: Good luck, it was a rare sight even in 1975.)

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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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