Ask the pilot

From the farthest north to the deepest south, no degree of latitude is left unexplored. Also, the pilot seeks a showdown with one of the world's most fearless journalists.


Patrick Smith
February 5, 2005 1:30AM (UTC)

"Carrasco is served by American and United Airlines, making Montevideo second only to Melbourne, Australia, as the most southerly destination in the world visited by any U.S. carrier."

Carrasco is the airport for Montevideo, Uruguay, and the preceding statement, seen in this space a week ago, pulled in several disputations. E-mailers argue that nearby Buenos Aires rests more southerly than Montevideo and therefore deserves runner-up honors after Melbourne.

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My hunch is that such claims are based on a cursory glance at a typical wall map, ensnaring us in yet another great-circle trap.

Picture the globe, and let's excerpt that section of the sphere containing Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The two cities, about 125 miles apart, sit relatively close to the bottom of the planet, where vertical lines of longitude begin to squeeze together. Flattening this area into a grid map causes it to bend, stretch or warp, giving a tweaked representation of the cities' bearings from each other. On both maps that hang in this apartment -- a Rand McNally employing Mercator projection, and a Michelin using Van der Grinten -- Buenos Aires indeed appears south of the Uruguayan capital.

Which it is not. According to Dorling Kindersley's 1999 Millennium Edition World Atlas, the city center coordinates for Buenos Aires are 34 degrees, 40 minutes south latitude (34° 40' S). Across the Rio de la Plata, Montevideo's numbers are 34 degrees, 55 minutes (34° 55' S).

What does that mean? Demarcations of latitude -- the cartographically challenged may envision horizontal stripes or bands encircling the globe -- begin at the equator (zero degrees, zero minutes), and from there proceed north or south. Unlike the east-west measurements of longitude, which must meet at the poles, those of latitude do not converge, meaning the distances represented by north-south degrees and minutes (and seconds too), remain constant over the earth's surface. A degree of latitude is always equal to 60 nautical miles. One minute -- a sixtieth of a degree -- is 1 mile. (A second, if we had reason to be so picky, is a sixtieth of a minute, or slightly more than a hundred feet.)

Thus the difference between Buenos Aires and Montevideo is 15 minutes, or 15 miles. It's very close, and any city's urban sprawl may sneak its overall mass one way or the other, but officially Montevideo sits slightly farther from the equator. According to World Aerodata.com, the coordinates for Ezeiza, Buenos Aires' main airport, are 34° 49' S. Aeropuerto Internacional del Carrasco, on the other hand, occupies 34° 50' S. Airport to airport, the difference is only a mile.

Either way Montevideo remains, as stated, the second-most-southerly place visited by scheduled U.S. passenger flights -- those of American and United Airlines.

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In first place is Melbourne, Australia, situated at 37° 49' S. Previous second-place went to Auckland, New Zealand, at 36° 53' S, until United ceased flying there, opting instead for a code-share arrangement with Star Alliance partner Air New Zealand. Sydney, by the way, is found at 33° 55' S, a scant 60 miles north of Montevideo, and 75 from Buenos Aires.

Fascinating, no? And with all this in mind, you're doubtless wondering about that other half of the world -- that upper hemisphere we've so rudely neglected. Which is the most northerly destination of a U.S. carrier?

The answer depends on whether we're talking domestic or international. The spoiler is the state of Alaska, whose namesake airline flies to the Arctic outposts of Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. Barrow is the all-out winner, at a whopping 71 degrees and 16 minutes north latitude (71° 16' N). Putting that in perspective, Barrow is nearly twice the distance from the equator as Montevideo (though it's a shorter travel distance from, say, New York, since the entire North American landmass is well above the earth's middle).

Elsewhere the honor goes to Continental Airlines' service to Oslo, Norway (60° 11' N), followed by Delta's daily departure to Moscow (55° 45' N). I'm loath to add freighters into the mix, but I'll mention that Reykjavik, Iceland, is on the UPS map. Reykjavik is considerably higher than Oslo, though a good deal south of Barrow.

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(About five years ago I flew a cargo charter from Göteborg, Sweden, to Sondrestrom, Greenland. Tucked into the rocky heel of a fjord, just over the Arctic Circle -- about 66° N -- Sondrestrom stands as the Pilot's most northerly turf-touching. The routing, I remember, took us directly over Iceland, affording a grand midday view of the famous Vatnajökull glacier.)

Let us not, despite the temptation, open the competition of northerly extremes to any and all airlines throughout the world. To do so would find us caught amid the logistical complexities -- routes that are semi-scheduled, seasonal, etc. -- of the numerous ex-Aeroflot directorates serving arctic Siberia, and those of assorted carriers plying into far northern Canada and Greenland.

Down south, however, it's easier. With Antarctica out of the picture (no scheduled airline service, as reviewed here last fall,) the sole geographic focus becomes Tierra del Fuego. Aerolineas Argentinas and Chilean carrier Lan are among those flying to Ushuaia, nearing 55° S at the tip of Cape Horn.

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Airlines don't make business decisions based on the bragging rights of landing at this or that most distant point. Continental may not know or care that Oslo happens to be our most northerly port of call.

One thing Continental surely does take pride in, however, is having garnered 2004's prestigious Airline of the Year award from OAG. The Houston-based carrier becomes the first North American airline to garner the award since its inception in 1982. Continental was also chosen for "best executive/business class" and was named "best airline based in North America." Publishers of the Official Airline Guide, OAG's annual accolades are akin to industry Oscars.

Actually, the folks at Air Transport World claim that same distinction, and both institutions' laurels, if determined by slightly different criteria, are highly coveted. (At ATW, winners are picked by the editors. OAG's are based on votes from frequent fliers.)

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Then we have Skytrax, consultancy group and advisor to the world's leading airports and airlines. The company's popular online forum grades everything from airport security to frequent-flier lounges, and it too bestows a series of annual awards. Like those of OAG, they are derived from the opinions of passengers.

The 2004 Skytrax "airline of the year" tally looks like this:

1. Singapore Airlines
2. Emirates
3. Cathay Pacific
4. Qantas
5. Thai Airways

What's needed, some will argue, if only in the spirit of unfairness, is a worst airline award. A year ago, Salon readers gave Ask the Pilot's dubious Golden Pretzel prize to Northwest, but until now I hadn't seen any imitators.

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Enter National Geographic Adventure, sister magazine of the famous society's National Geographic Traveler. Both publications are excellent, though Adventure, as the name implies, likes to style itself as the anti-Condé Nast, a get-your-shoes-muddy guide for the budget set. (Though honestly, in terms of target demographics I fail to see much difference between ads for $300 hiking boots or equally overpriced Tumi carry-ons.)

One of Adventure's star contributors is Robert Young Pelton, freewheeling reporter at large and coauthor of "The World's Most Dangerous Places." Normally I enjoy Pelton's work as a sort of mercenary journalist, always poking around in the planet's most volatile hotspots -- Chechnya, Liberia, Somalia.

"EXTRA!" shouts the cover of the latest Adventure, the "Best of Adventure 2005" edition. "Pelton Picks the World's Most Dangerous Airline."

Oh Christ, I think, my pulse beginning to race before I dare take a look.

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Flipping to page 40, there's the mustachioed Pelton looking every bit the quintessential battle-hardened correspondent. ("Robert Young Pelton is the man most guys think they are after slamming two tequilas." -- Tim Cahill.) Underneath the photo are his "Worst of the Worst" airline picks, though the word "dangerous," despite the brazen cover tease, is not again mentioned.

Pelton's choice for the category of "Worst Antiquated Airline" is Ariana, the national carrier of Afghanistan. Right away I'm peeved. Strikes me the qualifiers "worst" and "antiquated" are bit of a redundant pairing, and what should we expect of a tiny carrier from a nation recently subject to invasion and round-the-clock bombardment?

"It's the only airline with more planes crashed on the ground than flying in the air," joshes Pelton. In fact, other than an accident in 1998, I don't know of any Ariana crashes having occurred in recent years. Any destroyed hulls seen on the Kabul tarmac are war-related casualties. The latest fleet list data shows Ariana, founded in 1956 and once a partner with Pan Am, in possession of eight planes, including three Boeing 727s and three Airbus A300s.

Then we have "Worst Airport." Pelton gives it to Bamako, Mali. "A crowded, smelly shack next to a potholed runway." Having ridden Air France to Mali a few years ago, I'll vouch that the facilities at BKO aren't exactly posh. Neither are they squalid by any stretch, and it's tough to believe that Pelton, for all his exploits in the globe's most forlorn corners, couldn't have found a worse spot. (Also in Mali, I'll add, and as detailed in my book, the airport at Timbuktu is rather fetching.)

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As for the grand prize, "Worst Airline, Period," the nomination goes to Pakistan International Airlines. "A true third world experience," Pelton writes. "Runaway snack carts; people eating spaghetti with their hands."

This one bugs me more than the others. I've never ridden with the Pakistani carrier, but I have a very hard time accepting Pelton's caricature, which belies PIA's actual existence as, for lack of a better term, a serious airline.

PIA began flying in 1947, and today operates a 54-strong fleet to more than 30 countries, including newly introduced 777 service to Houston. At its Karachi headquarters PIA owns a modern training facility used by airlines from Africa, South Asia and elsewhere. It was among the first to install a video cockpit security system, and is slated to be one of the launch customers for the new, super-long-range Boeing 777-200LR.

Service-wise, while not on par with the better-known Asian carriers -- its inflight entertainment suite features an Urdu sitcom channel -- few judge PIA's economy class, particularly on longer routes, any worse than those of United, Northwest or American. Some of the feedback on Skytrax is quite complimentary.

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Pelton's amusing description likely speaks of a short-haul leg into the Hindu Kush rather than one of the airline's signature routes abroad. An extensive domestic network reaches the country's most remote regions.

Even so. Snack carts? Spaghetti? Sounds like the Queen Mary compared to what we're used to in the United States. Heck, I'll eat with my hands. At least there's food.

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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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Editor's note: This story has been corrected since its original publication.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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