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The mile-high snooze: Should pilots be allowed to nap? Also, airline cuisine and class warfare.

By Patrick Smith
Published July 25, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

The question a couple of weeks ago about the differences between onboard classes (first, business, economy -- where am I sitting and what's the difference?) ignited yet another flurry of e-mails about service standards on different airlines. Of particular interest to me were one reader's observations not about the classes themselves, but about the widening distinctions between them. It got me thinking.

While we grumble with increasing scorn over the discomforts of the typical economy seat, the trend upfront has been in the other direction. Not since well-heeled travelers relaxed in private berths in the 1940s have things been so luxurious. Doubtless I'll be reminded this is all part of our widening economic dichotomy and a sign of the impending class war. A joke, but there's probably a grain of truth in there somewhere.

From a BusinessFirst menu of Continental Airlines, summer 2003:

Mesclun salad mix with English cucumbers, red onion rings,
Roma tomatoes and a Kalamata olive,
topped with smoked salmon with cream cheese and caviar.

Only one olive?

The Chef's Selection
Sterling Silver grilled rib-eye steak seasoned with pepper,
Accented by red wine sauce with chanterelle mushrooms
Cheddar cheese mashed potatoes with chives
Grilled green asparagus spears

Chanterelle? I have all her albums. And here's the wine, which, by the way, "the Chef recommends." (I picture a guy in a white apron strapped into one of those bulkhead jump seats next to a flight attendant.)

Wolf Blass Presidents Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
This southern Australian wine is deep and concentrated in color
With extraordinary depth of flavor, exhibiting a bouquet of ripe plum
And underlying chocolate aromas.

I thought those underlying aromas were from the guy sitting next to me. As a finishing touch you don't get coffee, you get:

Freshly brewed Timothy's Custom Roasted Milano Blend

And that's not even first class. The airline's BusinessFirst, despite the intentional obfuscation, is technically business class.

Continental's pomp notwithstanding -- which, OK, sounds like some indulgent fun -- much of this gets back to my ongoing analysis of U.S. vs. foreign airlines, a theme we ostensibly curtailed a month ago. Palled by the grating tedium of domestic travel, Americans are sometimes astounded by the levels of polish and pampering aboard the best European and Asian airlines, where even the aesthetics of a plane's cabin are carefully considered.

If you have trouble fathoming the idea of airline executives poring over suggestions for cabin sidewall colors, you've probably never patronized a long-haul route aboard British Airways, Virgin or even Air Canada. "Urban Sleek" isn't the name of a rap singer, it's what Air Canada has titled the theme of its newly refitted cabins, which, at least upfront, feature sculpted sleeper seats with a massage function.

A few years ago, British Airways poured a billion dollars into revamping its interior schemes. "Colours are very emotional," says Neal Stone, a B.A. design manager speaking in a recent article in Canada's National Post. "We want colors that soothe the passenger. Blues do that. Reds, on the other hand, tend to speed the metabolism." Somehow I cannot picture the powers at Southwest or United wondering how its wall panels or carpeting might affect a passenger's metabolism.

And never mind colors, B.A. now offers 180-degree sleepers even in business class, raising the bar on a wide range of routes, including many that run head-to-head with American, United and Delta. As you'd expect, it depends on the airline, but what I wouldn't give to sit upfront aboard B.A. or join the Upper Class on a Virgin Atlantic 747. Before going bust, Swissair showcased an Eames-inspired chair with a dining table. There was even a second seat so a passenger could be joined for dinner.

In the old days, a fat leather seat and a doting stewardess were the hallmarks of world-class service, but technology and competition have combined to inspire a new, even eccentric standard. DVD libraries, noise-reduction headsets from Bose, gooseneck swivel lamps and privacy curtains have become the benchmark perks. At Virgin, B.A.'s surfeit-trendy competitor, one finds double beds, stand-up bars and an "inflight beauty therapist." Airlines even compete to outdo one another with the contents of their giveaway amenity kits. On Virgin, a rubber duck is included with the usual creams, balms and eyeshades. (Delta's Business Elite cookie tin kits, now discontinued, made great take-home collectibles.)

Such novelties manifest with particular flair in the forward rows of longer intercontinental flights, where savvy frequent fliers are more demanding than a first-time tourist on a discount flight to San Diego. Granted, however, most people aren't riding around on expense accounts, and while this is all great news to those able to afford it, there are millions of people who'll never see a first- of business-class seat.

Enter the innovations of Virgin, Emirates, B.A., Singapore Airlines and others. If you think there's only so much comfort to be wrung from a nine-abreast economy section, take a ride on Swiss International Airlines (the newly reborn Swissair), which called on Recaro GmbH, a German manufacturer of automobile seats, to cast sleek new economy chairs that add two inches of legroom in every row.

A lot of good that does us over here.

In mid-August I am traveling to Borneo on Malaysia Airlines, incidentally, so look forward to a trip report and sundry ravings about Malaysia's in-flight hospitality, which, should the accounts of others hold true, is world-class. The other day I called the airline with a question about the departure time and out of nowhere the woman asked me what kind of meal I prefer on the leg from Newark to Dubai. I'm flying economy, and it hadn't dawned on me that I might have a choice, let alone be asked about it over the phone, a month before I leave. Most pilots would ask for the Atkins meal, but I tell her "vegetarian."

The woman says, "Western-style or Indian-style?"

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Last week, the news told the story of a pilot caught napping on a flight from the Bahamas. Is exhaustion among pilots a concern? If so, why not allow a pilot to sleep during the flight if a copilot is present? (And you can't tell me that pilots flying from EWR to LAX don't doze off.)

Before I run with this, first recheck your notions of pilot and copilot. This might seem a peevish digression, but it's something that always rubs me: The first officer -- "copilot," if you must -- is not on hand as some kind of helpful apprentice. The captain does not say to his grateful underling, "Here, son, how about you take it for a minute." Both crew members are capable of flying the airplane in all regimes of flight -- takeoffs, landings and everything in between -- and normally do so in alternating turns.

Getting to the question, if you're hoping for some behind-the-scenes dirt and scandalous firsthand accounts of crew members nodding off over the ocean, you can stop reading. I'll leave that for Dateline or Fox. Indeed, news magazines seized on last week's nervously amusing story of a pilot caught napping by a passenger's camcorder. The company involved was a tiny, Florida-based airline with a single, 16-seat turboprop (not even a cockpit door). The airline's name does not deserve mention because, frankly, the whole thing was ridiculous.

It's my somewhat hesitant opinion that pilots should be allowed to nap, but I doubt the FAA will ever allow it because of public perception issues. There's also some merit to the idea that forcing two pilots to stay awake lessens the odds of both of them falling asleep. On longer flights, don't forget, sleep breaks are allowed, but only when auxiliary pilots -- they too are fully qualified -- are brought along to take their place.

While a minor issue at the larger airlines, pilot fatigue at cargo carriers, where back-of-the-clock rotations are par, and at lower-rung regionals and charter outfits, where schedules can be punishing, is a concern. Not a major concern, but certainly a more substantial one than pilots smoking crack or shooting heroin. The FAA realizes this, but chooses to put its resources into drug testing and other politically expedient issues with limited economic repercussions (unless you're CEO of a testing firm raking it in thanks to mandatory sampling), while it analyzes NASA studies on circadian rhythms to determine if exhaustion could possibly be a detriment to job performance.

In no way am I advocating pilots be allowed to intoxicate themselves in violation of law or common sense, but ask yourself this: Whom would you prefer at the controls of your plane on a stormy night -- a pilot who smoked a joint three days ago, or one who had six hours of sleep prior to a 12-hour workday in which he's flown seven legs? The first pilot has indulged in a career-ending toke; the second is in full compliance with the regs.

The trouble isn't flight hours, it's duty hours. Surprisingly, short-haul domestic pilots are those most affected. A 14-hour nonstop to Tokyo might be physically draining, but at least it's a single shot, with designated rest breaks and the relatively low workload of protracted high-altitude calm. The up-and-down rigors of Chicago-Indianapolis-Detroit-Cleveland are what expend a crew's strength and mental acuity. Having done a bit of both, I find intercontinental flying not nearly as enervating as multileg hops.

A domestic pilot is held to no more than eight hours of flight on a given day, but when the weather goes bad and delays pile on, that can entail 12, 13, even 16 hours of actual time on the job. He or she can be subject to long stretches of sit-around between takeoffs, and that's when fatigue really begins to build. Additionally, minimum layover periods do not include transport to and from hotels or time allowances for meals. On a 10-hour overnight, much of your allotted rest is consumed by bookend transport -- it can be an hour's trip from terminal to Holiday Inn -- and chasing down food at 1 a.m.

Regulatory loopholes have been tightened in the past few years, but these small changes didn't come quickly or easily. Whenever government tries to take a bite out of this problem, the Air Transport Association (ATA), the lobbying arm of the airlines, begins sharpening its claws and swinging its propaganda apparatus into action.

During hearings in August 1999, ATA senior vice president John Meenan got a storm brewing when he said, "There has never been a scheduled commercial airline accident attributed to pilot fatigue -- not one, not ever." A testament to pilots doing a good job under lousy conditions, if you ask me, and not exactly a justification for legally sanctioned somnambulation on the flight deck. So much for an ounce of prevention.

"Fatigue never shows up in autopsies," quipped back Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar.

What brought the hearings on was the crash of American Airlines flight 1420, which two months earlier slid off the runway at Little Rock, Ark., during a thunderstorm, killing 11 people, including the captain. He had been on duty for more than 13 hours. The NTSB partly attributed the incident to crew fatigue. At least two accidents involving nonscheduled, U.S.-registered cargo jets, one at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the other in Kansas City, Mo., have been blamed more directly on pilot tiredness.

Clearly this is one of those difficult to quantify factors after a crash, and as I said it's more of a cargo/regional/charter phenomenon than the norm at Delta, United or American, where work rules are more pleasant. Collective bargaining agreements usually add buffers to the more skeletal federal requirements. I don't know, I've endured lifestyles at airlines both low- and high-profile. To me, an assignment at the latter is, by comparison, like getting a free day pass to a fancy European health spa. In other words, nervous passengers shouldn't feel inclined to, um, lose sleep over the matter.

I should also applaud one of my former employers, a certain airline that had a policy whereby fatigued pilots could take themselves off the schedule with little more than a sick day marked against them, no questions asked. It was a much appreciated and rarely abused provision. After Little Rock, American adopted an almost identical program.

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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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