Ask the pilot

The pilot has problems with Gwen Stefani but learns the fate of Men Without Hats. Also: Exactly how much fuel does a plane need to get from point A to point B?

Published March 25, 2005 8:30PM (EST)

When, a few weeks ago, I rhetorically asked what had become of the band Men Without Hats, the one-hit-wonder from those formative days of MTV, I did not expect, or particularly want, an answer. To my amazement, the following came in from reader Bill Owen:

"I don't know where the rest of them fetched up, but the keyboardist went on to become my dentist here in Ottawa. At least he used to be my dentist; about a year ago he packed up and moved to the States. Before leaving, he did the soundtrack for a locally produced film called 'Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter,' which was even worse than it sounds."

I'd wondered which country, or perhaps which planet, Men Without Hats called home. Had I known Canada, I'd have pegged the keyboardist for a career in Cirque de Soleil, maybe. Definitely not dentistry.

Thinking back to 1983, I'm able to picture the "Safety Dance" video with an almost painful vividness. My apologies if the past 22 years have mixed up certain details, but I seem to recall band members prancing ridiculously through what looked to be the rolling moors of the British countryside (maybe it was rural Ontario). Behind them frolicked a strangely outfitted ensemble of fairies, dwarves, or druids of some kind, while Canada's weirdest dentist-to-be plinked away at his synthesizer, urging us to "dance if you wanna." It was all too much, even then.

What got this thread going, maybe you remember, was my grieving over the general atrociousness of in-seat entertainment, particularly the music options. On-demand video is becoming more and more commonplace, but a staple of the U.S. domestic flight still consists of bulkhead screen reruns of "Frasier" and an abysmal selection of audio channels. For those of us who don't yet tote along digital music players, the only thing more disappointing than a stale packet of snack mix is in the usual armrest anesthesia of nonthreatening pop songs, quasi-jazz and world music mishmash. Give the airlines credit, I suppose, for upgrading their gadgetry, but truth be told, Sting's greatest hits aren't any more palatable through ear buds (or, in some premium cabins, noise-reduction units from Bose), than they were through those old-style stethoscopic head vices.

En route to Argentina I was amazed to catch one of my favorite early '80s songs -- the Jam's "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" on the channel 10 playlist. Hoping against hope, I wondered if maybe the airlines were on to something. Alas, my more recent trip to Chile took care of that suspicion. Not that there's anything wrong with people willing to stomach Destiny's Child, Gwen Stefani, and LL Cool J all in the same loop. Or maybe there is, but either way I don't presume there are many of them. Surely I hope not.

And that's the thing: by attempting to satisfy everyone, the in-flight mix-masters please nobody. In fact they really tick some of us off. Who wants to endure the tedium of having to wait in 45-minute cycles just to hear one bloody song? And why are there so few channels to begin with? If I can get 16,000 cuts into a single iPod, there's no reason a quarter-billion-dollar 777 can't offer me Hüsker Dü, the Jazz Butcher, the Wedding Present and the Mountain Goats at my choosing.

At the same time, you might be amazed -- some would say disheartened -- to learn how seriously some airlines take this stuff. In one of the most daring examples of airline merchandising you'll ever encounter, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) compiles its onboard music program -- mostly instrumental folk tunes and the occasional Pakistani pop song -- for sale on CD at stores around the country. (I'm left struggling to imagine a similar endeavor here in America. Where to go with this? Now at all Tower Records locations: "The Best of Delta, Unplugged.")

Ask the Pilot's man in Pakistan is Ameel Zia Khan, who lives in Islamabad. I sent Ameel on a mission to find me a disc of PIA's greatest hits, so I could sell the idea to JetBlue.

"I went to several shops," he reports back. "But they were mostly sold out. The compilations are actually quite popular. Only one store had copies, and those were pirated."

Partway through an America West flight from Las Vegas to New York-Kennedy, the pilot announced that we'd experienced stronger-than-expected headwinds and would need to land in Columbus, Ohio, to take on extra fuel. How often does this happen and why? Did America West roll the dice before we took off, hoping we'd have enough gas?

Determining the required fuel is a serious and somewhat scientific undertaking. Crews do not ballpark the load with a cursory glance at a gauge, as you might in a car before a long road trip. The regulations get knotty, particularly on international routes, but a good place to start is the standard U.S. domestic rule: You cannot depart without enough fuel to reach your intended destination, then to proceed to the most distant of any requisite alternate airports (designated in accordance with forecast ceiling and visibility minima), and to maintain a 45-minute cushion on top of that.

The numbers are wrangled backstage, so to speak, by an airline's dispatch/flight planning staff. Intended routing and cruise altitude(s) are balanced against wind and weather conditions to formulate a minimum legal carriage. Air traffic considerations may further increase the total. The ascertained sum is presented to the captain, who has final word, as part of the preflight paperwork package. If in the captain's judgment the situation so warrants, he or she can request extra.

Once aloft, quantity on longer flights is kept track of progressively over a series of waypoints. Hitting a certain fix, the crew compares the actual remaining fuel with a predicted value shown in the fuel-synopsis portion of the flight plan. Flash back for a minute to that old freighter I once flew to Europe. Approaching a waypoint over the North Atlantic, we'd run a fuel score. I'd total up what remained in the jet's eight tanks and compare that amount to what was anticipated on the sheet. If, for example, at 40 degrees west longitude, roughly midway across the pond, the paperwork called for 75,400 pounds, and I counted 76,200 pounds, I'd tell the captain we were "ahead 800" (or 120 gallons if you prefer).

That's pretty old-fashioned, but a good illustration. On modern aircraft there's no need to have a hack like me staring at eight dials, with a calculator, but the basic procedure is no different.

Usually, the estimated numbers are accurate and reliable. With sophisticated software and thousands of daily flights, carriers have cutting-edge prognosticating tools and an immense bank of empirical data to work with. Still, every so often, whether due to shifting upper-level winds or a surprise air traffic control re-route, you drop below target values. Back on our freighter, it wasn't unusual for the captain to hear, "We're down 1,500." Even so, it's seldom a big deal unless you begin to fall substantially behind. (Keep in mind that even over the ocean planes stay within prescribed distances to diversion airports.)

When loads are heavy or other factors make takeoff weight an issue, a flight might set out with exactly the minimum legal fuel. Though all mandated buffers are accounted for, there isn't much wiggle room for unforeseen problems. Should the cards include drastically changed winds or holding patterns, a diversion may be in order. This rarely happens, but as the e-mailer can attest, it's not unheard of. You aren't making a pit stop because you're "running out of fuel," exactly (reference the British Airways stories from a few weeks ago). More specifically, you're unable to maintain those regulatory safety margins.

Critical to all of this is the fine print of how and when to designate a so-called alternate airport. Take the e-mailer's example of Las Vegas to JFK. If the weather in New York is forecast below certain parameters, a diversion point, or "alternate" must be filed as well. Think of it as a backup destination, and here too the weather is obliged to meet specific ceiling and visibility criteria. In some cases two alternates need to be filed, with fuel enough to reach both. Occasionally, such as when an entire region is blanketed by heavy fog, hunting down a permissible alternate can take you hundreds of miles away. The closest option to New York might be Pittsburgh (that's fairly extreme, but not unprecedented). Now, not only do you need enough in the tanks to go LAS-JFK, but enough to then backtrack to PIT. Add still more for the 45-minute rule, and yet more for any anticipated holds or delays -- what an airline calls provisionary or contingency fuel. Down at the gate in Vegas, you might hear chatter of the B-word (bump) if the flight is already heavily laden with passengers and cargo.

One way of working the system is to request a change of alternates while en route, if possible. Should Hartford turn bright and sunny, that can free up several thousand pounds on reserve for the much longer ride to Pittsburgh -- useful if ATC springs an hour-long holding pattern.

With all of these safeguards, you'd figure it a virtual impossibility for a plane to succumb to fuel depletion. If by virtual impossibility you mean four times, that's an accurate assessment. The most notorious and widely known incidents in which otherwise operable jetliners became hundred-ton gliders are those of a United Airlines DC-8 near Portland, Ore., in 1978; an Air Canada 767 five years later; the tragedy of Avianca flight 52 near JFK airport in 1990, and the strange story of Air Transat flight 236 in 2001. Air Canada and Air Transat landed safely. United and Avianca did not.

Dissecting the how and why of those events would involve many pages. Suffice to say the circumstances were complicated and, in at least two of the examples, involved some hideously unusual decision making. I choose to think the rarity of such occurrences -- a mere four flights out of many millions -- is the most noteworthy thing about them.

On a flight from San Diego to Dallas, a medical emergency required a diversion to Phoenix. We were immediately cleared for landing, but once on the ground we waited almost an hour. The pilot announced that refueling would be necessary, and there was paperwork to fill out. Why the delay, and why the need to refuel when Phoenix sits directly along the route between San Diego and Dallas? (The emergency involved an infant that had difficulty breathing. Later, there was no mention of the event in the Phoenix papers. Was this so routine as to be un-newsworthy?)

The hour-long wait doesn't surprise me. You'd have needed a new flight plan; a new ATC clearance; a revised weight and balance manifest; and so forth. Additionally, it's possible that all of the fuel parameters had changed. Having enough gas for San Diego-Dallas does not guarantee you still have enough, per the guidelines covered above, just because Phoenix rests partway between. Takeoff and climb to cruising altitude consume a considerable percentage of the total, and now you're looking at two takeoffs.

This type of thing does not happen very frequently, but I fail to see why it would, necessarily, warrant mention in the paper. The news was not the detour itself, which was nothing more serious than a plane landing at city B instead of city A; but rather the baby with breathing trouble. And babies with breathing trouble usually don't make the news. Unless, maybe, you're watching local Fox TV, in which case each of the leading five stories must, per network decree, in some way involve small children.

Jet fuel is essentially kerosene and sells for about $1.40 gallon at present. But why does it cost more than three times that amount down at the local hardware store? Are the airlines are buying in bulk?

Jet fuel is slightly different from campground-grade kerosene, and obviously there's an established infrastructure for its production and delivery. And yes, the airlines do buy in bulk. Lots of bulk, often hedging their purchases by buying millions of gallons, months or even years ahead of time. Of course, a carrier needs cash on hand to do this, which is partly why Southwest -- who else? -- is the industry leader. With oil prices creeping toward $60 a barrel, the airline was able to hedge more than 80 percent of its anticipated fuel needs for 2005 at a ridiculous $25 a barrel. For 2006 it has already bought ahead at $31 per barrel, and at $30 for 2007.

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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.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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