Ask the pilot

What would happen if you handed all the legends of the airline industry a cocktail and stuffed them into one hotel room? Also: Are regional jets unsafe?

Published June 27, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

My sparking of a debate about Southwest Airlines has helped prove the futility of trying to weigh airlines against each other. In the past couple of weeks I've received roughly equal volume of kudos and condemnation directed toward Southwest, which definitely seems to have cultivated a LUV/hate relationship (to use Southwest's stock ticker code once again).

Combing through past submissions, I see this is hardly an airline-specific phenomenon. I'll get one "Delta saved my vacation" letter, and a day later somebody is telling me how Delta lost his cocker spaniel and poisoned his grandmother. Luck and timing, says the evidence, have as much to do with passenger satisfaction as anything else. In the end nothing will be proven by soliciting any more en route horror stories, so I think it's time to put this genie back in its six-ounce aluminum can.

If any anti-Southwest bias lingers in my columns, so be it. Like I said, it's great at what it does. And I wouldn't mind a job there myself. In wrapping this topic up, I'll make only one more observation, which is that Southwest should add a first class to its planes. That way it can have frequent flier lounges too -- where people sit around a room in the airport basement eating barbecue on paper plates.

Herb Kelleher would find that funny. I know he would.

I wrote that Kelleher, Southwest's eminently kinetic founder, once arm-wrestled a rival to settle a trademark dispute. It's a true story and became a smartly exploited publicity gig for the airline. We could use a few more of those in this stodgy business, and so I propose a brainstorming session -- a party -- of all the most colorfully eccentric airline doyens of the past and present. And maybe some of the less colorful ones, too.

The scene would go like this:

The party is held at Howard Hughes' (TWA) hotel suite in Las Vegas. Hughes is there, but has cloistered himself in an antiseptic chamber and watches the proceedings by remote-control camera.

Kelleher shows up a half-hour early, chain-smoking and wearing a leather vest. He's swinging a bottle of bourbon in one hand and a motorcycle helmet in the other. "Where the hell is everybody?" He's promptly joined by Gordon Bethune (Continental), and the two begin playing poker and talking about motorcycles.

Crash! Things are really going now, and Kelleher has thrown a shot glass at Richard Branson (Virgin Atlantic). Branson has just arrived by hot air balloon, accidentally dropping a sandbag on Kelleher's Harley. Kelleher calls Branson "old Europe," rolls up his sleeve and says, "Let's go!"

Branson, who is also the only guest to arrive with a date (some unplaceable British pop starlet wearing an orange cocktail dress like a Virgin stewardess), snorts indignantly and looks at his watch. He has arranged for the two surviving members of the Beatles to play an acoustic medley of famous airline jingles, but they're late.

He doesn't know it, but they're late because they've been kidnapped by the conspicuously absent Donald Carty (American), who will soon place a ransom call demanding half of Branson's Heathrow slots by midnight or Ringo is history. Branson is looking around for his date to see if she knows the words to "Doing What We Do Best," but she's disappeared with Bethune. He catches them in a corner and hears Bethune whispering, "What a bunch of idiots, aren't they?"

If you're wondering about that ruckus outside, it's Ralph Nader and David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, who have chained themselves to a laundry cart and are demanding that everyone inside be hanged for war crimes.

The phone rings, and it's Robert Crandall (American) calling from Cape Cod to say he's sorry for not making it. He leaves a message and hangs up quickly. Also on the recording is a message from Frank Borman (Eastern) apologizing for his own absence. Borman has gone back to NASA to join its Seniors in Space program.

"What's your problem?" asks Kelleher. He's talking to Leo Mullin (Delta), who's been sitting quietly at the coffee table with a pencil behind his ear playing with a calculator. Behind him on the couch, wearing a silk shirt and silver tie is David Neeleman (JetBlue), who has been quiet all evening, watching and laughing quietly to himself. Branson shoots Neeleman a commiserating wink and says, "Can you believe this?"

Suddenly a funny-looking bald guy with glasses comes crashing into the room. "Who the hell are you?" demands Kelleher. It's Freddie Laker (Laker Airways), red-faced and nearly hysterical, pointing toward the bathroom. "I saw him, I saw him!" he stammers. Turns out Laker has just been visited by the ghost of Juan Trippe (Pan Am). Branson tries to put his hand on Laker's shoulder -- "Listen, Freddie" -- but he runs off to start a new airline.

"That does it, I'm outta here," shouts Kelleher. "Gordon, you coming?" As Kelleher walks into the hall, standing there in fedoras are Carl Icahn (TWA) and Frank Lorenzo (Eastern), each with a lawyer on one side and a bodyguard on the other. They have come to crash the party. Icahn steps inside and says to the crowd, "Listen, everyone, I have just purchased this hotel. You're welcome to stay but I've sold all the furniture, halved the employee wages, and doubled the rates."

Lorenzo has just bashed Ralph Nader over the head with David Stempler's "Fairness for Fliers" sign and is carrying the broken stick. He walks through the door and a waiter nervously asks if he'd like a cocktail. "You're fired," he tells him.

All right, I know, that is very insidery. But you can figure it out. The caricatures speak for themselves: Kelleher the rascally tough guy, the quasi-celeb Branson, the bastard Lorenzo, the patiently waiting Neeleman, with his eyes on the leftovers. Etc.

I have to fly from Louisville to New York, but generally the only planes serving this route are small regional jets. I'm reluctant to fly on these because I've heard they are unsafe and experience much more turbulence than larger planes. It's possible I could buy a ticket on a bigger airplane -- an MD-80 -- but I've heard these are very old and, in the end, just as unsafe as the smaller ones. Am I risking more by traveling in a smaller plane, or an older but larger one? What do you think?

What I think is you've got some terrible sources.

We haven't done a straight Q&A in a while, so this is a good, rootsy place to rejoin. This question seems scattered and disjointed, but in fact it's not, and I love it. I love it because it's so archetypal and brings us back to the sorts of old-fashioned worries that got this column going in the first place. For identical reasons, answering fully could take pages. If I can say so without it sounding like a condescending scoff, I don't know where to begin. This letter begs to be deconstructed line by line, and comprises a mélange of techno-statistical inaccuracies while also hinting toward a kind of phobic angst.

When the writer says "just as unsafe," I really cringe. For starters, you have to realize that some 30,000 commercial flights take off every day in this country alone, and the percentage point differences between "safe" and "unsafe" are practically infinitesimal. Thus "unsafe" becomes, for all intents and purposes, a useless expression.

The question includes a groundless implication that regional jets are hazardous. The party has "heard" this. Where does this hearsay come from and what is it based on? How many R.J.s have crashed in the past 10 years? I'm certain there have been a few, but offhand -- and I follow these things closely -- I can think of only one.

There's also a correlation drawn between turbulence and danger. There's a brief point of merit here, which is that small planes experience more turbulence than bigger ones. Well, in fact they experience the same turbulence, but because they're smaller the bumps aren't always ridden out as smoothly. This is an issue of comfort, not safety. One of Ask the Pilot's earliest tackles was the notion of turbulence knocking planes upside down and breaking off their wings. The Embraer jet is a highly sophisticated plane with a sticker price of about $18 million. Frankly, I'd love to fly one. The size of an airplane has little or no bearing on how inherently safe it is.

As for worries about a plane being "very old," I cannot recall any age-related mishaps in this country dating back to an Aloha Airlines incident in 1988 that killed one person, a flight attendant. I can think of one full-fledged disaster where an aging airframe is believed to have played a direct role -- the 2002 China Airlines crash near Taiwan, still under investigation. Planes are kept in service for decades, and are constructed and maintained with this in mind. Besides, an MD-80 -- a derivative of the DC-9 -- is a fairly new model. Hundreds of MD-80s are currently in service with American and Delta, among others, built from the mid-1980s through the end of the 1990s.

For the record, using early 2003 data, the oldest airplane still carrying passengers with a major airline in the United States -- and possibly the world, if your definition of "major" permits -- is a Northwest Airlines DC-9 built in September 1966, four months after I was born. Would I feel any less at ease aboard this plane than a brand new 747? No, not really.

Do planes ever not fly because of too much wind?

Not very often, and if so, it's usually a function of crosswind or tailwind. Whenever possible, planes take off and land into the wind (you might want to revisit one of our early columns -- headwinds mean greater lift and less required runway distance), and every plane is subject to a maximum crosswind or tailwind component (angle and speed) as listed in its flight manual. When this value is exceeded a plane must use another runway, if available.

Also, turbulence and wind are closely associated, and in cases where very strong winds result in very strong turbulence, especially at low levels in close proximity to an airport, flights might be curtailed. I've never experienced this myself, but it's not unheard of during strong storms.

I notice many newer airplanes have those little upturned fins at the end of their wings. What are the advantages of this design?

At the tip of a wing, the higher pressure beneath meets the lower pressure above, resulting in a turbulent discharge of air. Winglets, as they're affectionately called, help smooth this mixing, decreasing drag and, in turn, improving the range and efficiency of some airplanes. You see them in different forms -- some are rakishly canted while others, like those of the new 767-400, are just a gentle tweak. On the MD-11 and certain Airbuses they protrude from both the upper and lower surfaces of the tip.

Because planes have different aerodynamic fingerprints, winglets aren't cost-effective on all models. Looking at some of the latest designs, the 747-400 and A330/A340 have them, but the 777 does not. Other times, as with the 737-800, they're sold as an option. An airline must consider if the long-term fuel savings is worth the cost of installation and any applicable weight penalties. It depends on the type of flying its aircraft are typically engaged in. In Japan, Boeing has sold a number of 747-400s, used specifically on short-range pairings by JAL and All Nippon, with the winglets removed.

They also come as part of a noise-reduction retrofit package for old Boeing 727s. By bettering performance and reducing required thrust, they help shrink the noise "footprint" below.

The aesthetic factor is another matter. I think winglets are very attractive on some planes, like the A340, and look ridiculous on others, like the 737.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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