Ask the pilot

Why did Tom Ridge ask Qantas to stop letting passengers gather in the aisles? And what airline shone above all the rest in 2003?

By Patrick Smith
January 17, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)
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The Year in Air Travel, 2003. So many stories, scandals and disasters.

Actually, very few. 2003 happened to be the safest 12 months in commercial aviation history. Out of approximately 19 million worldwide departures, there were 25 fatal accidents. Ironic, if nothing else, considering all the squeamishness out there.


Stateside, the only blemish was last January's crash of a US Airways Express commuter plane in Charlotte, N.C., in which 21 people were killed. Improperly repaired elevator controls, allegedly the work of a subcontracted maintenance company, are believed to be the culprit, though -- and I need to make this clear -- an investigation is ongoing. Initial reports that the plane was overloaded and out of balance have been discounted. The Beechcraft 1900D was operated by Air Midwest, itself owned by the Mesa Air Group, on behalf of US Airways.

If you're wondering which is the second-safest year on record, it's 2002. According to the Air Safety Network, we're now averaging about 30 wrecks per year, down from about 50 through the 1980s and 1990s. This trend bucks the predictions of many experts, who warn of hull losses approaching one per day as the volume of flights increases around the globe.

Anyway, to celebrate the best and worst, highest and lowest, of 2003, it's time now for Ask the Pilot's first annual Year in Air Travel Awards ceremony. My webcam isn't working, so you'll have to imagine the scene here as it unfolds: the mahogany podium, the glimmer of the gold statuettes, the shrieks and exaltations as I announce the winners....


2003 Airline of the Year:

The expansion and enthusiasm of this pride-and-joy airline of Dubai is among the most impressive I've ever seen. Anything's possible, maybe, when a wealthy Arab state is writing your checks, but it's hard not to be impressed by Emirates' moxie. The company is expanding, buying huge new airplanes, and reaping profits. In 2002 Emirates was the fourth-most-profitable carrier in the world, and a similar ranking for '03 is expected once the numbers are in. In July Emirates placed the largest-ever aircraft order in history -- $19 billion for a slew of widebody Boeings and Airbuses -- and is awaiting delivery of 40-plus Airbus A380s. In December Emirates became the launch customer of the super long-range A340-500.

This June, Emirates commences nonstop flights between Dubai and New York. With geopolitical maelstrom in mind, unveiling a new service between the Middle East and the United States is about the gutsiest move I can think of.


2003 Raspberry Award:

For not relaxing its flight-time qualifications so I can better qualify for a job. Does anyone have a thousand hours in a 777 I can borrow? Runner-up in this category is JetBlue, another progressive go-getter whose uniform I wouldn't mind wearing. JetBlue's new in-house referral policy assures that my application will remain secure in its round file. My Rolodex is void of any employees who might pen a recommendation. Anybody out there?


2003 Outstanding Airmanship Award:
Unnamed crew, European Air Transport

When a cargo jet was struck by a shoulder-fired missile over Baghdad last November, it suffered a loss of all three hydraulic systems and most of its flying controls. For all practical purposes the plane, an older model Airbus A300, was uncontrollable. Astonishingly, using engine thrust to maintain altitude and direction, the three-person crew was able to land safely after 16 minutes. (The rocket had not caused an engine failure as originally reported by this same columnist.) The jet was flying on behalf of DHL Worldwide Express by its Belgium-based subsidiary EAT (European Air Transport), who have not yet released the crewmembers' names.

The event mirrored the famous 1989 mishap at Sioux City, Iowa, when an uncontained engine disintegration aboard a United Airlines DC-10 resulted in total hydraulic loss and control failure. Using only differential thrust, captain Al Haynes and his crew guided the DC-10 to a semi-successful crash landing that 184 of the 296 passengers and crew survived. (The DC-10's hydraulics were later redesigned.) Coincidentally, Haynes had spoken at a seminar attended by the EAT captain shortly before the Baghdad missile strike.


2003 Hindsight as Foresight Award:

For having the good taste and vision to help save and remodel Eero Saarinen's landmark TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport. For years decrepit, the modernist icon was on the road to demolition before preservationists and JetBlue stepped up.

2003 "Take That, JetBlue!" Award:


Lime green with envy, Delta's funky stepchild was dispatched to the Eastern Seaboard to stave off those uppity blue New Yorkers. Is it winning? I don't know, but frankly Song's verve is a cooler one, Saarinen or no Saarinen, with 48-channel entertainment and organic food to boot.

2003 Travel Deal of the Year Award:
Malaysia Airlines

Extended through 2004, the remarkable AccessAsia Pass allows unlimited 30-day travel to any or all of 24 Southeast Asian destinations. Backtrack through Malaysia's gleaming new Kuala Lumpur hub as many times as you want. Valid from Newark or Los Angeles, the deal also allows for Taipei or Dubai stopovers. Base fare: $999.

2003 Get Over It Award:
Tom Ridge, Minister (sorry, Secretary) of Homeland Security


Ridge can share laurels with his minions at the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), who in their most recent manifestation of idiocy have asked representatives of Qantas, the airline of Australia, to dissuade passengers from "gathering in groups" during flights to the United States. A Sydney-LAX nonstop is a 14-hour run, and it's something of a long-haul tradition for fliers to hang out and chat during the ride. Imagine some mean-looking Aussie purser walking down the aisle going, "OK, folks, break it up. Nothing to see here; move it along." A Qantas spokesman calls the request "a little hard to handle."

In February, Singapore Airlines will launch 18-hour nonstops, longest in existence, between Singapore and Los Angeles. Cabins on these trips will be outfitted with designated zones "for passengers to socialize and stretch their legs." No word if Ridge and the TSA are demanding those areas be cordoned off with police tape.

2003 Missed Your Calling Award

This one goes to young Nathaniel Heatwole, the would-be social protester who proved, finally and above all doubt, that yes, it's possible to sneak harmless objects past security screeners.


2003 Capitulation to the Inevitable Award:
America West Airlines

The Arizona-based carrier announced it will begin selling advertising space on in-seat tray tables. Rumors claim other proposals included seat-belt rentals, and a first-ever Adopt-a-Pilot program.

Overhead bins seem the more deserving spot, and I wonder if those who devised this awful scheme are prepared for the obvious: vandalism. A tray-table pitch, already a defacement in the minds of some, is begging to be marked, scratched, and otherwise taken to task. AW can expect to be scrubbing mustaches, middle fingers and swastikas from their interiors.

2003 Only in America Award:
Hooters Air


You've already read my Hooters Air column and saw my Hooters Air jokes, so I'll keep this short. Having leased two additional Boeing 757s, the airline has now, um, if you'll pardon the innuendo, doubled in size.

2003 Almost a Great Idea Award:
A&E Television Network

"Airline" is the show. The debut was the first week of '04, but the hype was well underway in '03. I have not seen an episode, but it'd be irresponsible of me not to shoot my mouth off anyway.

"We all have our baggage" is the tag, and to show everyone exactly what that baggage is, A&E's cameras will follow Southwest Airlines 737s through their natural habitats, documenting the tribulations of passengers and crew. The premise is a great one (even as it's borrowed from a similar program aired in the U.K.), but something about the execution disappoints me. If the producers are intending to throw some intriguing spin on flying, they've missed the mark. No offense to Southwest, but this is an airline whose planes don't venture beyond U.S. airspace. Stories from a 747 crossing the Pacific are bound to be more compelling than spring-breakers shouting at a gate agents. And don't you think Shanghai or Rio or Istanbul would make a more exciting backdrop than Chicago Midway? Tune in to watch Southwest employees "interact with a gaggle of harried executives, howling children, inebriated adults," just in case you weren't absolutely sure air travel was a miserable experience to be avoided at all costs.

In case you are inspired, A&E shamelessly reminds us: "America's fourth largest carrier, Southwest Airlines originated the concept of low-cost, no frills travel [wrong] and carries 65 million passengers every year." How much of "Airline" is reality show versus infomercial remains to be seen. Unable to afford cable I probably won't be watching, but trust me, I've seen all the stories.

Looking Back at Next Year: Remembering 2004

  • Free on parole, Nathaniel Heatwole is arrested in St. Louis after smuggling a fork and butter knife from an airplane, backward through security, and into the parking lot. "With all this talk of sneaking aboard with weapons," he tells TSA interrogators, "I wanted to show the world how easy it is to take things off airplanes." Heatwole's stunt touches off rounds of nauseatingly avant-garde civil disobedience around the country.
  • Tom Ridge and the TSA announce "Code Double Purple" after six passengers are caught discussing politics near the aft galley of Qantas flight bound for Los Angeles. U.S. Navy fighters destroy the inbound 747 with a pair of air-to-air missiles, just in case.
  • "We All Have Our Breakfast": After A&E's "Airline" is summarily canceled, 50 million people tune in to watch the premiere of the network's new series, "Watch the Pilot." Cameras follow erstwhile airline pilot and bestselling author Patrick Smith through his daily routines in Somerville, Mass. Viewers get to see Patrick "argue with the mailman, work on his column," and in one especially riveting sequence, "ride his mountain bike to Davis Square."

  • Patrick Smith

    Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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