Ask the pilot

The ugly skies: Readers' letters have made me even more depressed about the state of American flying. Plus: A Hooters Air sighting!


Patrick Smith
June 13, 2003 11:30PM (UTC)

It's no secret that a commonly revisited topic throughout my prolific, vastly informative body of work here at Salon is that of the safety and service reputations at foreign airlines. I bring this up over and over for two reasons. First, I think it's very interesting. How many of you, after all, didn't put down your mug of morning coffee in open-mouthed astonishment when you learned about the exemplary safety record of the national airline of Bolivia?

OK, don't answer that question, but my job here is to tackle the many irritating myths and misconceptions about air travel, and if any specific area is rife with them, it's our notions of flight in other nations. Secondly, raising levels of awareness about the comparatively lousy service aboard U.S. airlines might raise the public's expectations, which, in turn, is a call to the airlines to improve standards. Granted that's a stretch, and I can't picture Continental's Gordon Bethune poring over the pages of Salon going "Dammit, he's right." But it can't hurt.

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Last week, in order to highlight the differences between U.S. and overseas airlines, I asked for samples of best and worst in-flight experiences. Some of what you shared was even more painful than I expected. I knew things were bad out there, but I didn't think they were that bad. If half the things you say are true, our airlines ought to be shutting down out of embarrassment as much as financial peril.

While I can empathize, I'm declaring a moratorium, at least on lavatory stories. I had my own moment of infamy in an airplane lav, remember, and my tolerance for scatologically oriented misfortunes is very low. No more accounts of diaper-clogged toilets or suffocating odors, please, colorful and evocative as your descriptions have been.

Meanwhile, even as most of you are ready to petition the U.N. to indict United, American and Northwest for human rights violations, if I hear one more love story about Singapore Airlines I am going to weep. With the possible exception of the Red Cross, it seems there is no more dotingly philanthropic entity on the face of the earth. Judging by the letters I've seen, a middle seat in Row 47 on Singapore Airlines is apparently no less luxurious than the New Year Suite at the Peninsula Hong Kong. Which doesn't do you any good if you're flying from Denver to Philadelphia, but by all accounts you'd be insane not to fly them whenever possible. Says a reader, "Singapore Airlines is amazing, and reminds you that flying in the U.S. is the true third world." No surprise, actually, as they've probably won more service awards than anybody else.

Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, Malaysia Airlines and Air New Zealand are also Salon subscriber faves. This too reflects the various annual magazine polls.

Here are a couple of best/worst comments typical of those sent in:

"The aircraft had been refitted with new interior panels and overhead compartments. The decor was color-coordinated in serene shades of silver and blue. With extra wide seats, I was able to stretch my legs. The in-flight crew was impeccably dressed in uniforms that changed depending on the phase of service. The menu choices were printed on beautiful vellum cards that were held together by a blue silk ribbon. I chose broiled salmon, chilled garlic and herb potatoes, endive salad and poached pear for dessert. The delicious meal was served on bone china. The crew was constantly refilling the wine glasses with free French wine. Coffee (dark French roast) was served in china cups. There was an atmosphere of dignity that pervaded the entire flight -- a seamless, elegantly performed service. The captain addressed the passengers in French and English. Upon arrival each passenger was presented with a small package containing a bakery confection."

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Sounds like the dining room on the Queen Mary. Phoenix to Seattle, do you think? Not in a million frequent flyer miles. Paris to Dubai is more like it. For a taste of the more familiar, try this instead:

"For the cross-country trip, the aircraft was scratched, dented and filthy, with a trashed interior of mismatched seats that smelled of stale fast food and dirty feet. The cabin crew was surly, and looked tired. The meal was a soggy sandwich, frozen in the middle, that contained only a wad of bitter luncheon meat. It was served in paper bag, and was tossed on my seat in my absence. The flight was packed and the restrooms were either busy or so befouled that nobody but a desperate fool would enter. The entertainment was three hours of infomercials hawking products advertised in the onboard magazine. The passengers seemed on the verge of riot, and several got so drunk on four-dollar singles that the chief cabin attendant had to cut them off. The captain seemed cordial as he addressed us on the PA system prior to landing, but there was so much noise I couldn't understand a word he said. It was a disgusting experience from beginning to end."

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Of course, that's back when they were still giving out soggy sandwiches. Such extravagances have been widely curtailed in the battening-down after Sept. 11, when airlines began trimming in-flight perks to offset losses and higher security costs. It's not an easy call in a business that's been financially devastated, but in 2003 this either/or philosophy is maybe the prime mover of the differing standards between U.S. airlines and those overseas, where safety and service are not considered zero-sum variables.

Here are a few of the more entertaining anecdotes I received:

-- Aboard Taiwan's Eva Air, crews make multilingual farewell speeches and take bows at the front of the cabin after every flight, inciting applause from passengers. Now that's accepting credibility.

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-- Tarmac staff at Japanese airports bow to departing aircraft.

-- Virgin Atlantic actually apologized to a passenger when the scheduled aircraft, a 747-400, was replaced at the last minute by an older model not equipped with Virgin's full complement of entertainment and amenities. They offered to rebook on a later flight.

-- On long-haul Korean Air flights, washrooms are repeatedly cleaned and refreshed by cabin attendants.

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-- Air France passengers are greeted by potted plants on the countertops in the boarding vestibule.

-- In the local-flavor department, it's jerk chicken and fried plantains on Air Jamaica.

To be fair, however, I've heard some rough things about Ireland's Ryanair and a few of the upstarts taking flight in Europe and elsewhere. The trend isn't good with respect to the growing number of low-fare, no-frills airlines around the world. It's only a matter of time, maybe, before we're all on the same lousy playing field.

There was some spotty positive feedback on intra-U.S. flying, but most of it consisted of neutral reports from first or business class, where it's harder for an airline to screw up. You can only be so uncomfortable in a premium cabin.

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"Delta gets my vote. They have a certain European flair that the others can't seem to emulate."

That flair might be a vestigial thing, since much of Delta's international network was bought (some would say stolen) from the dying Pan Am 12 years ago. And am I the only one who loves Delta's gateside, flat-screen information monitors? They're cool and helpful, giving aircraft info, destination weather and upgrade information.

Midwest Airlines (formerly Midwest Express) and Alaska, although far smaller than the biggest majors, also are thought of fondly by many flyers.

I'd also like to quote a letter from Dave Riesz of Anchorage, who gets back to a point I tried to make several columns ago -- that airlines often seem misguided when it comes to satisfying passengers. It's not about luxury or faux-glamour trappings, it's about competence and basic comfort:

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"I'm convinced that airline service doesn't need to be exceptional, just consistent and competent. Last year I flew Aer Lingus to Ireland. There was nothing at all remarkable about the flight. But I don't need to be pampered. I don't need a gourmet meal. I just want to see that the crew is courteous, attentive, and useful."

There is much to be said for that. And I think airlines like JetBlue are tapping smartly into our sense of dissatisfaction and desire for clean, efficient service.

I also got my first-ever fan letters from, yes, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. (With nobody to dispute me, I hereby declare myself the Most Popular Pilot in Central Asia. Frankly, the idea of somebody reading my column in Mongolia is a feeling of achievement I cannot quite describe.) If you're dreading that ride from St. Louis to Baltimore on Southwest, remember it could be worse:

"Everyone crowds around the check-in desk, and the one person working doesn't know what to do or how much baggage is allowed. When you get on the plane, one stewardess will direct you to the back of the plane, and when you get there another one directs you to the front."

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Wait, I spliced in the wrong paragraph, that was Southwest!

Just kidding, it was Kyrgyzstan Airlines, where, according to the e-mailer who lives there, "Every Time is Our First Time." There were very few knocks on Southwest, which in this era of lowered expectations seem to have perfected the art of you-get-what-you-pay-for satisfaction.

And with that in mind, and just when I was starting to think it can't get any worse, I saw my first Hooters Air jet the other day. (Yes, the restaurant, which has leased a couple of old 737s.) Two girls in line behind me also witnessed the orange and white spectacle and responded, "Oh gawd!" If anything earns one of those only-in-America sighs of capitulation, it's the existence of Hooters Air. Imagine the jokes that would surface if one of their planes ever crashed.

See if you can think of one while I swing this entire discussion away from service and onto safety:

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No matter how often I rehash the suggestion that flying overseas is perfectly safe, I still get e-mails asking questions like "Should I avoid the Hungarian airline when I fly to Budapest?" or "Is it true that China Airlines pilots don't have licenses?" Any letter that begins "Is it true that ..." usually has my finger reaching for the N key even before I finish reading.

It's not your fault. Stories that European crews are allowed to drink wine with their meals, for instance, circulate even among pilots. Another well-known anecdote -- a sort of urban myth of the pilot world -- is that of a foreign crew intentionally ignoring the cries of a jet's automated warning system because the computerized voice was that of a woman. Rather than be told what to do by some uppity safety device, they crashed. I don't know if this really happened, and I surely have my doubts, but I can vouch for at least one less dramatic story:

Once during a layover in Europe, a scheduling situation required a pilot I knew to deadhead commercially on a large European carrier. No problem, you'd think, but he was full of apprehension about taking a seat on this particular airline. This was no startup or cargo outfit from a former Soviet republic -- it was a major national airline in business for 75 years, with an ultra-modern fleet and outstanding safety record. So what was the problem? "I just don't like flying on foreign carriers," was his comment.

Oh.

Two of the most maligned reputations belong to Taiwan's China Airlines and Seoul-based Korean Air. Delta temporarily suspended its code-share agreement with Korean over safety concerns following the latest in a string of incidents in 1999 (though it was reinstated by 2002 after implementation of tougher policies). And perhaps most notorious of all, the apparent suicide-induced crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 in the fall of 1999 greatly heightened our suspicions about airlines of distant lands.

I'm going to recommend you head back into the archives and read my "Crash Culture" article, which appeared on Salon more than a year ago, before this column existed and just after a China Airlines 747 went down off the coast of Taiwan. If I'm being conspicuously defensive about China Airlines, it's partly because my simulator partner, back when I was employed at Former Airline, is now a pilot there. And it's also because they have one of the worst accident records.

I realize that sounds like a contradiction, so let me explain: In a business where danger is measured by the tiniest differences in percentage points, less safe and unsafe are entirely different things. Often enough -- and happily so -- the comparing of air safety statistics is an exercise in hair-splitting.

Using numbers provided by AirSafe.com, one of the few reliably accurate aviation resources on the Web (the other being mine), we see that China Airlines and Korean Air suffered 10 and 7 fatal accidents of one kind or another respectively since 1970. Other sore thumbs are Indian Airlines (the Subcontinental domestic airline, not to be confused with Air India), which suffered 15, and Philippine Airlines with 8.

Applying our own intensely rigorous standards to companies like China Airlines might deem their records unacceptable, yes. A fatal event every couple of years is comparatively awful. But considering most large airlines are responsible for hundreds -- or thousands -- of departures every day, you get a sense of the minutiae at hand.

Acknowledging statistical differences is one thing, but perpetuating nonsense is something else. Here are some posts from Lonely Planet's "Thorn Tree," an online forum where supposedly savvy travelers exchange advice and information. I expect the more hardcore readers of Lonely Planet are among the most experienced and daring travelers in the world, so it's especially discouraging to read the levels of misinformation perpetuated at this site. Here are some excerpts, which I've edited for clarity:

"Merpati (Indonesia) really sucks: no-show pilots, unreliable planes, bad maintenance and dirty seats."

Well I can't speak for the seats, but there's really no way a passenger can gauge reliability or the maintenance condition of a jet, no matter how dirty it looks.

"China Airlines had ten crashes in the past four years. I think one of the recent ones happened a year ago just west of Taiwan, and resulted in more than 200 deaths. That's why they are cheap."

Close. You've got the ten crashes part right, but you're off by 29 years. And this low fares/safety correlation is a new one on me. Southwest must be deadly, but Airsafe shows me they've never had a fatal accident. What gives?

"China Airlines employs ex-military jocks, hence the appalling safety record. The same applies to Korean Air. Ex-military pilots take risks with passenger lives."

Really? Well, we'd all better tear up our tickets then, since virtually all major airlines around the world recruit ex-military pilots.

"Korean Air was so bad the insurance companies refused to insure their aircraft until major changes were introduced and they replaced their military pilots with civilian ones."

The situation at Korean Air was complicated, and while there's some element of truth to this person's whitewash, it's taken totally out of context. Under the oversight of a former Delta Air Lines executive, pilot training at Korean was overhauled, but military crews were not replaced by civilian ones.

"China Airlines went down in 1999 and I think eight other times since 1970. They are not the worst, but are three times more likely to crash than American or European airlines!"

Maybe they are, but three times almost nothing is still almost nothing.

"Three separate China Airlines planes fell out of the sky and crashed, within a month! This was back in spring 2002. Maybe the Chinese pilots drink with Aeroflot's pilots before they fly. No joke, I am serious."

Of course you are. You're also completely wrong. Three crashes in a month, you say. Somehow I missed that, and so have all the records. And please, no more tales of those vodka-swilling Aeroflot pilots. Now it's the Chinese too!

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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.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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