Ask the pilot

No-fly rule, you bother me. Also: Which airline has the youngest planes, and is it possible to be dangerously new?

By Patrick Smith
Published May 27, 2005 7:30PM (EDT)

Construction crews at the airport in Bangor, Maine, are hard at work. Next to a shop selling plush moose and postcards of Stephen King's house, workers are putting the finishing touches on the new in-terminal mosque, jail and interrogation center.

Or so you'd expect, as once again Bangor -- own little Acadian Guantánamo -- became an impromptu port of call following yet another in-flight terror scare.

Speaking at length about this nonsense violates my self-imposed gag order on issues of air security. There are only so many ways to rephrase and rework three and a half years' worth of exasperation. But every time it seems our dementia has begun to subside, we manage to outdo ourselves, touching off a fresh news cycle and a well-deserved round of "Can you believe it?" commentary.

The latest false alarm, second in as many weeks, took place last week Tuesday. Escorted by a pair of F-15 fighters, Alitalia flight 618, a Boeing 767 headed from Milan to Boston, went scuttling into Bangor after a lone passenger was matched to a name on the U.S. government's no-fly list. The man, along with his luggage, was removed from the plane, interviewed and released by the FBI.

A week earlier, a Boston-bound Air France jet made a similar detour into Bangor. Members of an Egyptian family on its way to Disney World were questioned and released.

Back in February, a Royal Air Maroc 767 en route from New York to Casablanca dropped by for a few hours. Two men were taken away by the FBI, but no security-related charges were filed.

And my favorite: In September 2004, a United Airlines flight from London to Washington made a BGR appearance when authorities learned that a member of the no-fly list, Mr. Yusuf Islam, had managed to board undetected at Heathrow. That sounds reasonably nefarious, except that Yusuf Islam turns out to be the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens. Stevens -- er, Islam -- strongly denies any links to organized terror.

Granted, there's a precedent of pop stars causing trouble in the skies. Paul McCartney was once caught with half a pound of marijuana at Tokyo's Narita airport, and REM's Peter Buck was arrested on air-rage charges in 2001. And in most cases, anyone whose identity comes with the phrase "formerly known as" deserves a hard time. But this is going too far.

The obvious question, which I'm unable to answer fully, is how and why the identities of suspected passengers non grata aren't determined before a plane is off the ground. The acronymic entities responsible for our protection and entertainment -- FBI, FAA, DHS and TSA -- are mum on the nuts and bolts of no-fly procedures, as well they should be, but the rules require airlines to transmit passenger data to the Department of Homeland Security within 15 minutes of takeoff. Officials then cross-check names against terror watch lists.

That is, most of us would reasonably argue, 15 minutes too late.

Once again we see our bullheaded fixation with the Sept. 11 formula. Regulars to this column are free to take a coffee break for the duration of this paragraph, but for the rest of you, here goes: The 2001 attacks had nothing to do with evading security and everything to do with exploiting our mindset. The weapon of choice that day was the element of surprise, and little else. All things considered in 2005, the suicide-skyjack scenario is the one terror scheme least likely to succeed, and thus least likely to be attempted. No terrorist with half a brain would be aiming for the path of highest resistance while so many easier methods of destruction are available. Yet what other scenario warrants the diversion of an aircraft more than six hours into an eight-hour flight?

Certainly not the threat of an onboard bomb or explosives. Any saboteur knows he has at least a quarter hour of quality time to get his dirty work done, and surely it makes little sense that an onboard device would not yet be detonated after crossing 3,000 miles of ocean. Even if, theoretically, a perpetrator were carrying some sort of remote-control device -- or, I hate to bring it up, shoe bomb -- he'd still be free to set it off once the plane began its premature descent.

Commenting on the Air France incident two weeks ago, investigators called it "a coincidence" that a man from the Disney-bound Egyptian family shared the identical name and birth date of an individual on the no-fly list. That's what we're working with, presumably -- we're diverting widebody airliners carrying hundreds of people, at tremendous cost and inconvenience, not to mention inducing widespread anxiety, over a "coincidence" involving nothing more scientific than a printout of names and birthdays.

One suspects the sharing of sensitive information across borders is partly to blame for the lag time. If a plane is coming from Milan, the Italians must gather and organize the information before passing it on to DHS officials -- who then, as we're led to envision it, sit at a desk with a red felt-tip marker drawing lines through people's names.

It doesn't need to be this way. Seeing how most passengers reserve their seats weeks or even months ahead of time, authorities should have that much of a head start, needing only to concentrate on the small fraction of fliers who purchase tickets in walk-up arrangements. Apparently that's not the way it's happening, at least of late. In December 2003, two Air France flights from Paris to Los Angeles were canceled when U.S. agents suspected as many as 13 prebooked passengers may have been al-Qaida operatives. (All 13 were interviewed and released by French police.) Flights operated by British Airways, AeroMexico, and Air Tahiti Nui have also been affected by predeparture probes.

Evildoers netted so far: none.

They're not really installing holding cells at Bangor International, of course, but some of us are starting to suspect that airport officials are behind the rash of diversions, hoping to boost sales of clam rolls at the terminal restaurant. Tourism in south-central Maine could also use a boost, and rumors swirl that the Egyptian family headed to Orlando was in fact shuttled away to the Fairfield Inn over on Odlin Road, off the end of runway 33. Assured that a few days in Bangor would be "just as enjoyable" as any spent in Florida, the family was given an all-expenses paid tour of the Bangor-Brewer metroplex, including dinner for three at the famous Dysart's truck stop.

If my knowledge of Bangor and its environs sounds strangely intimate, that's because I know the airport all too well. I was employed for almost four years at a BGR-based regional airline, and I estimate having spent a cumulative four months of my life hunkered down in that Fairfield Inn, and I enjoyed my share of homemade bread and mashed potatoes at Dysart's. (A bit of proud Maine parochialism from the Dysart's Web page: "Dysart's restaurant is to Greater Bangor what Moody's Diner is to Waldoboro.")

The real reason so many planes end up at Bangor is because of its location. Situated beneath the East Coast-North Atlantic airway routings, it's the first -- or last, depending if you're coming or going -- gateway airport with enough room and amenities to host heavy commercial transports. BGR's runway is the longest of any civilian airport between New York City and Europe. That, along with 24-hour customs and a spacious terminal, makes it the ideal diversion point.

Your discussion a week ago on the fallacy of aging aircraft being unsafe was very enlightening, but naturally it got me wondering: Which American carriers operate the newest aircraft?

The article included a list of the average fleet ages of the country's 10 largest airlines. It went like this:

1. Northwest Airlines 18.3
2. Delta Air Lines 12.4
3. American Airlines 12.1
4. America West Airlines 10.8
5. US Airways 10.8
6. United Airlines 10.2
7. Alaska Airlines 9.3
8. Southwest Airlines 9.1
9. Continental Airlines 7.9
10. AirTran 3.0

Broadening the field a bit allows us to include JetBlue and the Denver-based Frontier Airlines, whose rosters hover around 2 years old. It's tough to pick one over the other, as aircraft deliveries continue. Either way, that's not only good enough to be youngest in America, but scores among the youngest worldwide.

JetBlue is itself a very young airline, and all of its aircraft are delivered straight from the factory. Meanwhile, Frontier -- the 11-year-old carrier usurps the identity of the original Frontier Airlines, today part of Continental -- just completed a multiyear transition from all Boeing (737s) to all Airbus (A318s and A319s). With 44 planes, its relatively small size enables it to orchestrate a full-fleet turnover with milder infrastructure challenges than would face a major.

Both JetBlue and Frontier are good examples of how the low-cost or upstart-carrier template has evolved. In the old days, new entrants tended to rely on old, cheap-to-acquire airframes. This is no longer true, and the trend has taken hold around the world. Dublin's Ryanair has overhauled its entire fleet, and the highly successful Brazilian carrier Gol -- having captured nearly 30 percent of the Brazilian domestic market -- relies exclusively on the latest 737s.

Another interesting contender is ATA Airlines. In its former incarnation, American Trans Air, the carrier's aging 727s and L-1011s averaged around 20 birthdays each. Eventually some 757s were brought onboard, and older ships began to depart. Today, with a fresh influx of 757-300s and new-generation 737s, ATA's median hangs somewhere around 3.5 years. The problem, of course, is that ATA is bankrupt.

Outside the United States fleets tend to be young. At the front of the pack are names like Korea's Asiana Airlines, India's Jet Airways, Singapore Airlines (big surprise), and Emirates (ditto).

Meanwhile, having called out Alex Marshall for his use of the phrase "dangerously old," a flip through the history of civil aviation accidents provokes an ironic question: Can a plane, in fact, be dangerously new?

Just as it was for Marshall, that's something of a crude overstatement, but the point is a valuable one. The de Havilland Comet, for example, the world's first jetliner, suffered a rash of mysterious crashes before investigators discovered a fatal design flaw. Later, the DC-10 was plagued by early problems involving the design of a cargo door. The in-flight rupture of one of those doors caused one of the deadliest air disasters in history -- the crash of a THY (Turkish Airlines) flight near Paris in 1974. The plane was less than 2 years old. And when it debuted, the computerized flight deck of the Airbus A320 was so advanced that crews had a hard time adjusting. The learning curve was steep, and at least two fatal incidents resulted from misuse of the plane's automated flight-control systems.

That's not to suggest you should avoid models like the A380 or 787 once they're in service, but a new airplane -- like any other new piece of high-tech equipment -- will reveal certain kinks and idiosyncrasies. Age may bring frailty, but it also brings wisdom and experience.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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