Ask the pilot

Inside the Narita airport pachinko machine. Also, how can moving around just a few passengers make a difference in how a big 767 flies?

Published April 2, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

Terminal 2, New Tokyo International Airport

As I approach the ATM, a woman in a blue uniform is wiping the screen and keypad with a towel. She nods -- more of a bow, really -- and moves aside. The machine takes my card but will only dispense 10,000-yen notes -- about $90 more than I need to grab a snack and buy the notebook in which I'll write all this down. A motor hums, the screen blinks, and a crisp new bill drops into a metal tray. The bill is so pristine that I half expect the cleaning woman to pick it from the tray with a pair of tweezers. But she's busy now -- polishing a bank of payphones off to my left. Nearby, about 25 people are sitting before an enormous, scoreboard-sized television showing Tokyo tourism promos.

The man at the exchange desk can't break the ten thousand. "No, no, no," he says, eyeing the bill with a look of exaggerated pity. He sends me to a different exchange, downstairs on the mid-level mezzanine. When I get there, a woman is standing sentry in front of the glass partition. Apparently some kind of currency desk greeter, she bows and wants to know exactly what my banking needs entail. Like every employee at Narita she is wearing an immaculate blue suit, white gloves and an armband -- an outfit that makes Japanese airport workers look like a cross between paramilitary troops and hospital orderlies. "I just need some smaller yen," I tell her. I show her the bill and make a chop-chop-chop gesture.

She flashes a robotic smile, sticks a carbon-backed form in my hand, and leads me by the elbow to a table. There, I spend the next two minutes transcribing my name, address, passport number, and itemizing precisely which denominations I would like my change to appear in. Next I move to the window, placing the form and 10,000-yen note into a red basket. A man behind the glass pulls in the basket, rips off the carbon, grins ... and points to another window.

This is the "cashier" window, where after 30 seconds another basket is pushed at me through a slot. Inside, finally, are 10 notes of 1000 yen each, accompanied by a receipt. The bills are not only as starched and clean as the ten thousand had been, but strangely warm to the touch, as if they've been spun from an onsite press beneath the counter.

Back upstairs, in the bookstore, a girl about 17 is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the following:

Sexy Girl Welcomes
For You the Music is Snatch

Mulling that over, I remember these are the people who brought us indoor fishing and meat-flavored ice cream. I peruse the choice of notepads, where lo and behold the Janglish is even better. One spiral-bound pad features the graphic of an elephant. Next to the elephant it says:

What Lovely Friends. They Will Bring Happy Day For You.

I'm thankful for the sentiment, but in my guise as airport journalist I obviously require something more masculine and businesslike. The one I buy is a college-ruled hundred pager. It's a serious-looking book, and on the cover, in block letters:

Private and Official Time For Sensuous People

Walking through Narita's Terminal 2 is like being inside a giant Japanese pachinko machine. The building is spacious and immaculate, but the clutter of lights, shops, signs and displays brings on a kind of electronic claustrophobia. And there's something about Japanese architecture -- a style that splits the difference between modernist and sci-fi .... Maybe it's the Gen-Xer in me -- too many Saturday afternoon monster movies in the '70s -- but I'm waiting to hear a crash and that rusty-throated bellow of Godzilla.

In addition to numerous restaurants and shops retailing everything from postcards to DVD players, Terminal 2's amenities include five Internet kiosks, an observation deck and a children's play park. Showers and bunks are for rent by the hour, or you can opt for the free-of-charge "relaxation facility," a set-off space with soft reclining chairs. The entire departure zone is set up for wireless LAN. These are a ll good things for any airport, though Narita lacks the flair of those newer Asian megaprojects -- the dramatic vastness of Hong Kong International, or the hints of tropical lushness at Singapore (koi ponds, gardens, swimming pool) or Kuala Lumpur (in-terminal rainforest).

As the world's 11th busiest airport outside North America, Narita is peculiar in that two U.S. airlines maintain large hubs on the premises. United and Northwest base their Pacific Rim flying here, staging onward services to Bangkok, Seoul, Manila, Taipei and a dozen other cities. The industry calls this "Fifth Freedom" flying -- the rights of a carrier to pick up passengers in a country other than its own, and deliver them to a third country. The arrangement at Narita dates back to Japanese reconstruction after World War II (the Freedoms of the air -- eight presently exist -- were first provisioned by the Convention on International Civil Aviation, held in Chicago in 1944). By the late 1990s, U.S. airlines were accounting for half of all international traffic at the airport.

Out on the tarmac it's not unusual to spot 10 or more 747s in the colors of Northwest or United, outnumbered only by the hometown JAL or All Nippon Airways. Northwest has been a player throughout Asia for decades -- indeed the airline was calling itself Northwest Orient until a name change in 1985 -- while the bulk of UAL's routes were purchased from a dying Pan Am.

Next time you're upset about airport parking charges, take comfort that you're driving a Honda and not a Boeing. Narita's landing fees are the highest in the world. Airlines pay about $9,000 each time one of their 747s touches down.

We recently caught a flight aboard a Boeing 767. The plane was fairly empty, and most of the two dozen passengers were seated near the front. Just before takeoff the flight attendant announced that "for balance purposes" seven people from the front of the plane would be required to move to the back. Now, maybe it's just me, but it's quite a confidence buster to learn that the safety of an aircraft the size of a 767 might hinge on the seating position of seven people.

You're getting the wrong idea. The juggling was necessary to fine tune the aircraft's center-of-gravity (CG) as mandated by the preflight weight-and-balance scheme. Had those passengers not been relocated, rest assured the plane would have taken off and landed just fine, albeit officially out of tolerance. A plane's center of gravity will shift as it consumes fuel, so both a takeoff and landing CG are predetermined and checked against the limits.

The weight and placement of passengers, fuel, luggage and freight, are worked out prior to flight. Occasionally -- at smaller regional carriers, for one -- the pilots themselves are responsible for the number crunching, but generally the grunt work is taken care of by the folks backstage, who run the data through a computer. Usually the task is complete before leaving the gate, but sometimes, especially if last-minute changes were made, it'll be sent to the crew remotely by radio or data-link after pushing back.

Obviously the placement of seven people on a small commuter plane is more critical than on a widebody Boeing, but only an extreme out-of-balance condition will render any aircraft unflyable. Improper CG computation is more likely to increase fuel consumption than cause an accident. Off the top of my head I can't recall any large airliner having crashed from weight or CG-related trouble. Initial speculation blamed the 2003 crash of a US Airways Express turboprop on a balance problem, but the investigation soon turned to mechanical failure.

Remember that even a full complement of passengers entails only a fraction of a widebody plane's sum heft. With tanks filled and every seat taken, a 767 tips the scales at about 400,000 pounds, but the portion represented by passengers and their luggage weighs but a tenth of that. (In a column several months ago we discussed the use of standardized weights for passengers and their belongings.)

I'm a Channel 9 devotee when I fly United Airlines, and among the more mysterious bits of lingo I hear is use of the word "heavy," suffixing a plane's flight number. For example, a controller will say, "United 502 heavy, descend to six thousand feet ..."

I'd normally shy away from addressing something so arcane, but I get this question more often than you might think. Channel 9, if you're not familiar, refers to the armrest dial position through which United's passengers may listen to air-to-ground communications during flight.

The "heavy" distinction is used by air traffic control and pertains to all aircraft with a maximum gross weight in excess of 255,000 pounds. The wingtips of larger planes, you may recall, are known to spin away powerful, potentially hazardous vortices -- especially during takeoffs and landings -- and separation parameters are more stringent when following behind or below such an aircraft. Air traffic control already knows who is "heavy" and who isn't, but the radio call serves as a reminder both for controllers and crews. In most countries outside the United States the distinction is not used.

As I've opined before, eavesdropping on pilot-controller conversation is either extremely fascinating or tediously indecipherable, depending on the listener's infatuation with flight. As far as I know, United remains the only party offering this service, though Air France and Emirates are two of several carriers now showing live-feed video from fuselage-mounted cameras. On Emirates 777-300s, using your in-seat selector, you can switch back and forth between two angles -- one aimed straight ahead, allowing great shots of the runway during nighttime landings, the other pointed at the ground, giving a spy-cam view of streets and houses.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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