Ask the pilot

Flying the pope-friendly skies. Also: Why no nonstops to India?

Published April 22, 2005 6:23PM (EDT)

Alan Robles, writing from the Philippines, was first to solve my April 8 pope riddle. The two clues, pleasantly Google resistant for a change, were these:

1. Pope John Paul II
2. St. Patrick

A quick story:

When John Paul II arrived in Boston, the initial stop on his American tour in 1979, I went to the airport and saw him. With me were two friends, fellow airplane nuts Shawn Meaney and Peter O'Leary. It was the first day of October, and we were in eighth grade.

Hanging out at the airport was something we did all the time, but on this particular Monday -- school had been called off for the occasion -- we had to catch the subway before dawn just to stake out a good location. There were thousands of people lining the roadways at Logan. We weren't practicing Catholics in any serious way (those Sunday catechism classes were not taken seriously), but this was our chance to see a famous person.

While waiting for John Paul's arrival, we drew pictures of what we thought a pope's plane should look like. I remember inventing a sort of Vatican version of Air Force One -- a Boeing 707 with a crucifix on the tail.

As it happened, the pope landed in a green and white Aer Lingus 747. The previous week, the same plane had carried him from Rome to Dublin, marking the first time any reigning pontiff had visited Ireland, and the first time one had flown with a commercial operator other than Alitalia. The jet, captained by Aidan Quigley, Aer Lingus's most senior pilot, was named St. Patrick.

All Aer Lingus jets wear the names of Irish saints, though it's possible this one was chosen to honor the man responsible for converting Ireland to Christianity and clearing out those pesky snakes.

The 747 was retired in the 1990s. Today, an Airbus A330 carries the St. Patrick moniker (or "Padraig" on the starboard side). The plane is registered EI-DUB, should ever you spot it taxiing by.

Another plane that once ferried John Paul II was an Air France Concorde, registered F-BTSC. Pictured here, this was the same SST that crashed outside Paris in 2000.

The pope's birth name was Karol Wojtyla. I recently came across a really cool picture of Wojtyla in younger days -- a profile shot from the 1930s where he looks like F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Wojtyla was from Krakow, the austere medieval city in southern Poland. Years after his visit to Boston, I visited Krakow, and I remember walking past the house in which Wojtyla had lived. There's a plaque on the wall outside.

Krakow, Poland's number one tourist hub, is known for another thing too -- its proximity to the town of Oswiecim, about 35 miles to the east. Oswiecim is the Polish name for Auschwitz, site of World War II's biggest and most notorious death camp.

Should you ever make a trip there, know that Auschwitz is really two separate places: the smaller Auschwitz itself, called Auschwitz-1 and the much larger Birkenau camp, or Auschwitz-2, just across town. (A third facility, Auschwitz-3, was constructed at the village of Monowice but is not maintained for the public.)

Unfortunately, most visitors see only Auschwitz-1, which has been restored as a museum and -- there's really no other way of putting it -- tourist attraction. Today its impeccably manicured grounds are perversely reminiscent of a college campus. Though it was the original extermination site, Auschwitz-1 represents only a small bit of the overall Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.

Three kilometers away, Birkenau is the place you see in most of the old newsreels and photographs, with its staggering expanse of barracks and infamous boxcar depot. Sprawled over more than 400 acres, Birkenau had room for 100,000 prisoners, and it is where most of the industrialized killing actually took place.

Preserved as they were in the closing days of the war, the dilapidated wooden bunks, shattered latrines and demolished chimneys -- the gas chambers and crematoria were blown up by the retreating SS -- are an overpowering dose of time travel. (A visit to the killing fields outside Phnom Penh, while similarly unfit for the squeamish, hardly compares.)

To quote Lonely Planet: "Birkenau simply must be seen ... tour groups who are shown only Auschwitz will get a totally false impression." Should you ever find yourself touring southern Poland and make it to Auschwitz, do not skip the short bus or taxi ride to Birkenau.

Two weeks ago I submitted my choices for the world's 10 most visually stunning places. It wouldn't have been proper to add the dark spectacle of Auschwitz to that list, but at the same time I can't overemphasize the power of the place and the unforgettable imagery it imparts.

Only minutes after submitting said list, I began second-guessing myself. Not over Auschwitz, but because I neglected one or two magnificent urban panoramas that probably deserved a spot among all the natural wonders. I'm not much of a cities person, and admittedly my prejudice was obvious -- and did not go unnoticed by several readers.

Two classic vistas that jump to mind are that of Hong Kong from atop Victoria Peak (for the perfect perch, follow the hilltop trail to the left, through the trees and away from the visitors center) and, perhaps most impressive of all, the dazzle of Rio de Janeiro as seen from atop Corcovado beneath the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer and his outstretched arms.

I once spent four days in Rio -- sensual city of samba and sin -- for a friend's bachelor party, which was certainly enough to make me wonder what, exactly, Jesus might be doing up there. Whether he's indeed redeeming anything or simply waving in surrender to the lost souls of this insane tropical Babylon is, maybe, open to interpretation.

Anyway, say what you will of the disappointing sameness of cities from within; when seen from afar the effect can be entirely different and no less sublime than standing in the presence of any mountain, glacier or desert.

Or, OK, ocean. Reader Dan Prall, aka Diver Dan, was anxious to point out that not only did my list ignore cities, it ignored two-thirds of the earth's surface.

"Off Indonesia lies the basin of Pulau Pura," Dan tells us. "On the southwest side is 'Wally's Wonderland,' encompassing an area about a quarter-mile wide and up to 80 feet deep. I submit this as one of the most beautiful scenic places anywhere, no matter that only a few thousand people will ever see it. There are endless fields of anemones, coral and fish; shapes and colors as far as the eye can see."

And all this time I thought "Wally's Wonderland" was a theme park in Florida.

Why don't any airlines fly nonstop to India from the United States? There's so much traffic that I can't imagine the demand not being sufficient.

Although more than 2 million people travel yearly between the United States and India, there are no regularly scheduled nonstops connecting the two countries, and there never have been. Both market forces and government restrictions are responsible.

U.S.-India nonstops are technically feasible, and have been for many years. Nonetheless, it's a long trip. Air-India has considered such runs in the past, but JFK to Delhi, for example, is only slightly shorter than JFK to Hong Kong or JFK to Johannesburg. That's marginally reachable for a heavily loaded 747 and probably untenable during May, June or July, when temperatures in the Indian capital soar over 120 degrees. An Airbus A340 or 777 might be more suitable (Air-India recently leased three ex-United 777s), but set-up costs, fleet allocations and anticipated yields don't always warrant nonstop service, even if raw passenger totals appear to justify it. Traffic volume alone does not necessarily equate to profit.

Right now, Delta and Northwest are the only American passenger carriers operating to India -- Delta via Paris; Northwest through Amsterdam, with all routes calling at Mumbai (Bombay). United Airlines previously flew to Delhi, but no longer.

Air-India serves JFK, Newark, Los Angeles and Chicago. Its flights connect in Europe, allowing the airline to capitalize on both the U.S.-India and Europe-India markets with a single flight. Service from New York to London, for instance, connects to both London-Delhi and London-Mumbai departures.

Having said all that, the U.S.-India market is about to be shaken drastically after ratification of a new "open skies" treaty signed by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and his Indian counterpart Praful Patel. The pact, ratified in New Delhi on April 14, is expected to result in a slew of new routes, increased frequencies, and lower, more competitive fares. The prior bilateral agreement, dating back to 1956, greatly handcuffed expansion and kept ticket prices high.

Already changes are under way. In May, Delta Air Lines will commence service to Chennai (Madras) from New York-JFK via Paris, while Continental is gearing up to introduce that elusive first-ever nonstop. Flights between Newark and Delhi are scheduled to start in November, using 777s. Reciprocally, Air-India will open stations in Washington, San Francisco and Houston.

(I've said it before and I'm saying it again: Air-India's livery, with its Mogul-arch detailing, is the most dashing one out there.)

Inside India, civil aviation is at last undergoing a growth surge after decades of stagnation. Despite having the world's fourth-largest economy and a middle class greater than the population of the United States, corruption and bureaucratic bloat have held per capita use of air travel to a level lower than Haiti's. That, according to a recent piece in Air Transport World, which ranks India's flights per citizen at 0.014 annually, compared to 2.02 in the United States.

Regulatory overhaul and systemwide reform are beginning to pay off. Traffic rose 24 percent last year, while Indian carriers have placed orders for nearly 200 aircraft. Air Deccan, SpiceJet, and Kingfisher Airlines lead a pack of a half dozen upstarts, while even the stodgy old-timers are stocking up. Air-India expects to purchase about 50 planes -- a mix of widebodies and 737s (the latter for its Express division, which will work the Persian Gulf, catering to the 4 million Indians who live, work and worship in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Bahrain and Kuwait).

"All this is largely the result of the economic liberalization of the past 14 years," says Satadru Sen, Ask the Pilot's Indian liaison, speaking from his office at Washington University. "And of fresh government policies that have terminated the privileges of the state-owned airlines. Meanwhile, tourism by Indians is now as big as tourism to India; more Indians live and work abroad than ever before, and economic growth is almost on a par with China's."

Several heretofore domestic players have been cleared by the government for international operations. At least two of them -- Jet Airways and Air Sahara -- have designs on Europe and North America. The latter is looking to acquire either A340s or 777s.

Call me superficial, but something about these subcontinental newcomers really irks me and in a way undercuts their spunk and ambitiousness. Jet Airways, for one, is known for punctuality and good service (in a culture demanding of good service, hot meals are a standard even on short intra-Indian routes), but that name -- Jet Airways? -- is so adolescently redundant. SpiceJet is even worse.

Then you've got Air Sahara. "The Hindi-Urdu word 'sahara,'" explains Sen, "means something like hospitality, help and solicitousness all lumped together."

Maybe, but I'm afraid the airline will convince too many Americans that the Sahara Desert is in India. Enough of them already think it's in Arizona.

Air Sahara's advertising slogan is "Emotionally Yours." Presumably this refers to how much it cares about its passengers, but there's something scary about an emotional airline.

A kingfisher is a bird, but if you've ever been to India you'll recognize it as the name of a popular Indian lager. Kingfisher Airlines is owned by Vijay Mallya of United Breweries, maker of the beer. Mallya styles himself much the flamboyant tycoon à la Richard Branson and has borrowed Virgin Atlantic's strategically decadent image for his airline, set to begin flying this month with a foursome of Airbus A320s (30 more have been ordered).

I don't like it, but if the idea of naming an airline after beer seems of questionable taste, remember two words: Hooters Air.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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