Ask the pilot

Do all the international airflight cancellations make us any safer? And when will the White House learn how to spell?


Patrick Smith
February 7, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

Last weekend's batch of canceled flights between Europe and the United States was the second in barely a month. British Airways and Air France grounded five departures from Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle airports, while a Continental Airlines run from Glasgow, Scotland, to Newark, N.J., also was axed. Whether you're an unemployed pilot hungry to get his job back, or one of thousands of stranded passengers, nothing is more infuriating than these on-again, off-again cautions.

The largest U.S. airlines, already brutalized by the fallout of war and terror, are yet to rediscover anything close to profitability. Following Sept. 11, high-yield international traffic saw a dropoff approaching 40 percent in some markets. Just as the trend was at last creeping forward, along comes code orange and the latest scare from Europe. As if airport screening procedures weren't already driving off as many fliers as possible, repeated -- and repeatedly vague -- bouts of ominous, last-second terror alerts are guaranteed to keep the ink running red and customers running away. Americans, already among the planet's most squeamish travelers, are more likely than ever to forgo international holidays and business trips. While the bottom lines at B.A. and Air France are holding their own, the poison is shared by both sides of the Atlantic. Continental and Delta -- the largest players between the States and Europe -- stand to lose the most.

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Cynics are prone to see the warnings as either tactical ass-covering or, for those of you with more mobilized appetites for conspiracy, blatant fear mongering with designs toward keeping the populace ripe for manipulation. It'd be patently foolish of me to accuse authorities -- be they our own Homeland Security team or European equivalents -- of going the full blatant Orwell route, but general ineptitude, maybe, is a more tempting call.

It's hard to gauge, of course, since nobody is talking. The how, why and who of the cancellations are aptly bunkered -- as perhaps they should be -- behind a web of secret intelligence. "Credible threat information" was one source's summary of what led to the groundings. "For security reasons," explained an Air France spokesperson. "In the light of information received" was all one British Department for Transport official could muster. We're not owed a complete explanation, frankly, so long as ends bear out the means: arrests, for example, or seizures of weapons. But a rash of frightening-sounding near misses followed by scattershot reports of unnamed individuals vanishing into the foggy arrondissements of Paris, is not a confidence builder.

Over Christmas, after a half-dozen Air France flights were nixed, authorities said an al-Qaida operative, possibly in possession of a concealable bomb, had no-showed for one of the flights. A hunt for the man touched off raids in the city of Lyon, France, and a town outside Paris. The man, holder of a French passport and graduate of an al-Qaida boot camp, remains at large. At the same time, however, different reports spoke of numerous terrorists planning a Sept. 11-style takeover. Stories that a jet would be commandeered for a dive-bombing mission into Las Vegas seem to have been based on little more than the fact that Vegas happens to lie along the flight path between Paris and Los Angeles. The FBI later admitted that a list of suspected terrorists transmitted to French police contained the names of innocent passengers. Mistaken identities caused at least three of the six cancellations.

For an airline, the financial repercussions of pulling the plug on a long-haul departure are a lot more than chump change. Nine hundred passengers on two continents may need to be accommodated, rerouted and, if they're lucky, apologized to.

Better to err on the safe side? In December 1988, the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, Finland, was tipped off that a Pan American flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to New York would be bombed in the coming weeks. Deciding not to publicize the threat, officials warned Pan Am and sent notice to embassies around Europe, ostensibly so their employees could make alternate travel arrangements. No flights were canceled. On Dec. 21, Pan Am flight 103, which had originated in Frankfurt and was headed to JFK, blew up over Scotland. Until you-know-what this represented the worst-ever terrorist attack against American civilians. And who remembers Ramzi Yousef, co-mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center prelude and master mixer of hard-to-detect liquid explosives? Yousef's plan, code-named "Project Bojinka," was to blow up more than a dozen U.S. airliners simultaneously over the Pacific. We caught him in 1994 after he'd already killed a passenger during a test run aboard a Philippine Airlines 747.

I'm perplexed by what remains a stubborn allegiance to the Sept. 11 boilerplate -- the notion that an attack will follow the kamikaze skyjack script. Nothing seems able to temper our preoccupation with knives, sharp objects, and whether or not certain passengers are licensed pilots.

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Which terrorists, I'd like to know, would be stupid enough to board a 747 at a large European terminal and attempt an airborne siege? My hunch remains that saboteurs will look elsewhere. Perhaps they are throwing up smokescreens in London or Paris while the real plan will be hatched in Kingston, Jamaica; San Salvador, El Salvador; or Caracas, Venezuela. And what would that real plan be? More knives, mace and box cutters? I doubt it.

Last summer a gaggle of Bangladeshi men were apprehended in Bolivia --- Bolivia -- after scheming to seize aircraft and attack U.S. targets elsewhere in South America. Where better for a perpetrator to find some operational camouflage than these regions of lowered guard and darker skin?

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And here's some food for thought. Please note the following list of airlines:

Turkish Airlines
Pakistan International
Biman Bangladesh
Royal Air Maroc
Royal Jordanian
Saudi Arabian Airlines
Kuwait Airways
Uzbekistan Airways
EgyptAir
Malaysia Airlines
Ghana Airways
Ethiopian Airlines

What these carriers all have in common in addition to large numbers of passengers named Mohammed and Hussein, is that all fly regularly -- in some cases daily -- to New York or Washington. Why these flights are not accidentally (or otherwise) setting off those hair-trigger alarms is a testament either to the accuracy of our intelligence, or its total irrelevance.

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It strikes me now that I've probably managed to scare the pants off everybody reading this -- precisely the opposite of what I had in mind. To what extent recent events underscore the resourcefulness of terrorism vs. the futility of trying to fight it remains to be seen, but until then -- and here we go again with statistical platitudes -- the sheer volume of aircraft safely arriving in this country probably should encourage rather than frighten us, no matter their countries of registration or the citizenship of their passengers. Hundreds of flights crisscross the Atlantic and Pacific every single day.

I'll give the government -- even those overly excitable folk over at Homeland Security -- the benefit of the doubt on this one.

As for the White House itself, well, unfortunately I can't be so easy on them. After all, they can't even spell ...

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Several weeks ago, in researching a column about Air Force One, I came across a typo at the home page of the White House Military Office, part of the greater White House Web site www.whitehouse.gov. (No, not the vastly more informative spoof site whitehouse.org, but the real thing.) "In 1944," explains the Military Office, narrating the history of Air Force One, "President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the creation of the Presidential Pilot Office's [sic] to provide air transportation to the President and his staff."

The what? No word on whether President Bush himself penned this error, being not only a communicator of highest regard, but a hotshot aviator as well, having served as a pilot for the Texas Air National Guard, valiantly defending our borders against invasion by Mexico. In any case, I pretty much ignored the mistake, figuring it must have been posted recently and wouldn't last.

A friend of mine -- a pilot who lives near Houston -- was somewhat more offended and dashed off a complaint. "Nitpicking is one thing," explains Michael, "but this was too much." (Yes, it's true, incidentally: Not all airline pilots are fire-breathing conservatives, even those from Texas.) Mike told the webmasters he was appalled to find such a blatant mistake on the official White House Web site, hinting that their lack of concern for good English must come from the top.

And you say writing to the government is a waste of time? I'll have you know the White House was quickly in touch. Here, verbatim, was their way of addressing the apostrophe catastrophe:

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January 26, 2004

Dear Mr. Kennedy:

On behalf of President Bush, thank you for your e-mail. The President appreciates hearing your views and welcomes your suggestions. President Bush believes that this is a time of responsibility, resolve, and great progress for our country. As he has said, our Nation has confronted great challenges, and we are meeting the tests of our time with focus, clarity, and courage.

Since taking office, the Administration has taken important steps to protect our homeland, respond to the threats of terrorism, and strengthen our economy. The President has also signed historic reforms that are helping to transform both education and Medicare. Today, President Bush continues to work to build a society where all our citizens can realize the promise of America. He is also working to expand peace and freedom overseas, for the security of the American people and for the benefit of the world. As the President works to accomplish these goals, he welcomes the views and concerns of all Americans. Thank you again for taking the time to share your ideas.

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Sincerely,
Desiree Thompson
Special Assistant to the President and Director of Presidential Correspondence

The error is still there.

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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.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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