Ask the pilot

The pilot begs: Don't let the dastardly French name the next-generation Boeing passenger jet!

Published May 23, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Just so you know, please disregard everything I said last week about the Alaska Airlines tail mascot. The airline's communications department has written to discount the revisionist Old Man Winter story. He is not Old Man Winter. Neither is he Johnny Cash, Che Guevara, or anyone else other e-mailers have suggested.

He is an Inuit. And according to some, his visage is that of an actual person and former employee of the airline. One writer seems almost to know the fellow: "The portrait on the Alaska tail is that of an Inupiaq man from the Kotzebue area, just north of the Arctic Circle on the Chukchi coast."

Either he knows what he's talking about or he's trying to fry my spell-checker.

Whoever he is and wherever he lives, this discussion is hereby curtailed.

Moving on...

I assumed most people would find the May 16 quiz a little too tongue-in-cheek to bother playing, but in fact, so far, the competition has been ... fierce. (Well, not exactly, but that's the term I'm going with.) Salon should be proud of its readership, clearly a gang not to be intimidated by mere nonsense, or smirked at by a crackpot columnist who has obviously lost his mind. You certainly showed me.

And I'm sure my ex-girlfriend is flattered that I've immortalized her 1992 stomach trouble on the Aegean Sea. I expect a letter from her lawyer, or possibly her physician, any day now.

Personally I've never been seasick, or airsick for that matter, but I did battle a bad case of hypoxia once in the Andes. Also, if you're ever in Mandalay, Burma, do yourself -- and the hotel plumbers -- a favor and skip the buffet at the Golden Duck restaurant. I emerged unscathed from such intestinally unfriendly places as India and Egypt, but the Golden Duck was merciless.

But I digress. (I am dying to write a travel article, see, but Salon has put the hammer down and says no. Airplanes, airplanes, airplanes, that's all they want from me. Feel free, if you get the urge, to entice them otherwise.)

Please keep the quiz attempts coming. There's still a week to go, and while the grades have been extremely impressive, a perfect score is yet to be attained. As of right now, the leaderboard shows a four-way tie. It's been a very multinational contest, with the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore and Canada all chipping in. Oddly, it's the Dutch who've been consistently answering correctly on number 20, the baseball question, while my American readers keep guessing wrong with Ted Williams (a clue!). I'm told baseball is relatively popular in Holland, so maybe that's not so bizarre.


On the subject of contests, Boeing is running an online poll and soliciting input for the naming of its proposed 7E7 airliner. The aerodynamically advanced, ultra-fuel-efficient 7E7, a 200-250 seater, is scheduled to enter service around 2008. Boeing says it will be "eco-friendly and people friendly." So people friendly, in fact, that its future passengers get to name it.

The current "7E7" name is a temporary one, pending an official designation to be unveiled as early as this year's Paris Air Show, which gets underway in about three weeks.

The Paris Air Show is commercial aviation's biggest bash, a sales and schmooze fest of airliners and equipment (military too) held biennially at Le Bourget field near the French capital. While I would love to attend, I am hoping France's input on the 7E7 naming contest is kept to a minimum. Not because of any Iraq-related controversy, but because the French are lobbying hard in favor of the most irritating of the proposed monikers.

The one I'm talking about is "Dreamliner."

Boeing boasts the 7E7 will be "designed by passengers for passengers." Not sure how good an idea that is, and at least for now we should less concerned with who designs it than what it's called.

So far Boeing has presented four options: Dreamliner, Global Cruiser, eLiner and Stratoclimber. Now, both "eLiner" and "Stratoclimber" are, if you ask me, off the table. They are simply too awful to take seriously. But to my dismay, "Dreamliner" is running neck and neck with "Global Cruiser," the latter being the only digestible choice, in my opinion.

As of earlier this week the results were as follows, with about 205,000 opinions cast from around the world:

Global Cruiser: 36%
Dreamliner: 32%
eLiner: 16%
Stratoclimber: 14%

The site compares results from the U.S. with those from the rest of the world, but until a few days ago they also had a graph showing the tallies from five other nations: China, Japan, Germany, the U.K. and France. (Apparently if you lived in Surinam or Burkina-Faso your choice didn't count.) Studying the graph, I noticed that an amazing 60 percent of the French voters had gone for "Dreamliner," the highest number by far of all the countries, boosting it to a 32 percent overall share, only 4 points behind "Global Cruiser." And gaining.

One of two things is possible here. Either "Dreamliner" has a less gooey connotation in French than it does in English, or, more worryingly, we are witnessing a clever and subtle form of revenge at the hands of our (former?) allies, leaders of that terrorist-loving Coalition of the Unwilling. "Dreamliner," you might notice, is just about as stupid sounding as "freedom fries." Coincidence?

Regardless of how we feel about Iraq, something needs to be done, or we'll be doomed to shame in a hail of laughter the minute Boeing pulls up the curtain in Paris. So please, after researching answers for my quiz, link on over to Boeing's contest and help crash the "Dreamliner" party. Pinch your nose, give the French a derisive "non!" and cast a vote for "Global Cruiser."

I've done my part already and dashed off a letter to Boeing's marketing people, who may or may not be aware of this insidious Gallic conspiracy. Here's the text of my correspondence, which you may cut and paste in a protest of your own:

Dear Boeing:

I'm writing to beg that you make a sensible decision regarding the naming of your 7E7 airliner. Can't you just call it the 787?

Rather than attempt something flashy, why not stay with the respected and recognized system that has served you -- and us -- well for so many decades? Believe it or not, and despite what people might be telling you, the public does not equate traditions like yours with things old-fashioned or outmoded. The country is already lost in a haze of marketing hype and over-the-top, effectively meaningless product names.

Stratoclimber? Dreamliner? Are you kidding? There is nothing more brilliantly idiosyncratic than the numbering system of Boeing's airliner line, from the 707 through 777. Both in title and design, icons like the 747 need no introduction, and I recommend you keep the idea going. You are monkeying with it at your own peril.

That felt good.

I composed a similar letter a few years ago, back when Airbus was still mulling what to call its tentatively titled A3XX. Since it was planned to be the largest jetliner in the world, I was afraid they would decide on something ridiculous, like maybe "A32000 ÜberJumbo." The comparative example of clear thinking and tradition I cited was none other than Boeing's. They had pleased me by sticking to the usual formula when their state-of-the-art 777 began flying in 1995. Airbus sent me a reply and promised they would do nothing crazy. In the end they split the difference, avoiding anything flamboyant but mysteriously skipping the numbers between A340 and A380.

This time, Yvonne Leach, from Boeing's 7E7 Communications Team promptly writes back to thank me for my cranky note. She says, "This is a critical time for your input, as we will determine in the next year what we decide to call the airplane."

I immediately noticed her French-sounding name and became suspicious.

She got me thinking, too, about all the commercial planes built over the decades and some of the designations they've held. Some have carried stand-alone names, like de Havilland's Comet; others had nicknames in conjunction with numbers, like Lockheed's L-1011 Tristar. Then there's the BAC/British Aerospace One-Eleven, which, in its proper and official spelled-out form, is both a name and a number. And so on.

Most have been good choices, understated and modestly poetic: Constellation, Trident, Vanguard and Concorde. The English laid it on a bit thick with the Britannia, a four-engine turboprop of the 1950s, but mainly we've been treated to dignity and restraint.

Dreamliner, if those scheming French get their way, will ruin all of that.

The progressive series always worked best. The 707 through 777, the DC-1 through DC-10, and so on. Even the Soviets stuck with their TU and IL prefixes. But eventually things got weird. Airbus jumped four places with no explanation, and McDonnell Douglas abandoned DC for MD, scrambling up the numbers for good measure. Everyone's heard of a DC-9, but what the hell is an MD-80? Answer: It's a souped-up DC-9. Everyone's knows of the DC-10, but what the hell is an MD-11? Answer: It's a souped-up DC-10.

But at least we don't have planes called Camry or Passat.

Then again, maybe an ugly plane deserves an ugly name. While checking out Boeing's poll, take a peek at what the 7E7 Dreamliner Global Catastrophe will look like. It seems to be a cross between a 767 and an amusement park ride, with a forehead like a porpoise. And that tail ... Having seen one or two more attractive renderings previously, I'm hoping this computer drawing has been subject to a few artistic inaccuracies.

Not to be outdone, Europe's Airbus Industrie will soon be rolling out its own aesthetic travesty, the 600-ton, double-decked A380. When it takes to the sky in the colors of Singapore Airlines in 2005, the A380 will become the largest and decidedly least sexy passenger plane in the world. That is, maybe, until the Dreamliner makes its debut.

By voting, by the way, you also can enter a sweepstakes with a grand prize even better than a lunch date with Patrick Smith or a Salon Premium subscription: a "dream flight" (Boeing says it, not me, and there's that word again) in a Boeing flight simulator.

Go for it. I've thrown my own hat into the sweepstakes, but if I win I'm donating my prize. To those of us who've flown for a living, we prefer to be in simulators only when our bosses say we have to. We have a tendency to associate simulators not with "dream flights" but with things like engine fires, wind shear, electrical systems gone haywire, and various other stressful, potentially job-ending possibilities.

I entered the contest under the pseudonym Mohammed al-Abbas and listed my country as Yemen, curious if Boeing will let me near the sim if I win.

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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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