Ask the pilot

Not even being lionized in Rome can keep the pilot from gloomy thoughts about the future of commercial aviation -- including the likelihood that he will never fly again.

Published September 23, 2005 7:30PM (EDT)

So the news from back home is bleak, dire, disappointing -- and fully expected. On Sept. 14, already referred to as "Black Wednesday" in some circles, Delta and Northwest joined the sad fraternity of U.S. airlines operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Atlanta- and Minneapolis-based giants join earlier filers United and US Airways. United, senior member of the club, filed for protection nearly three years ago, while US Airways has been to court twice since 2002. (For what it's worth, US Airways' latest reorganization plan received court approval on Sept. 16, positioning the airline, which in May announced a merger with the smaller and vaguely more solvent America West, for Chapter 11 reemergence by the end of this month. Of course, they've been there before.)

To put this in sobering perspective, these Four Airlines of the Apocalypse represent about half of all the seats sold in America and include two of the world's three biggest carriers. Delta, the third-largest airline in the world, has managed to amass an astonishing $28 billion in total debt, while Northwest, the eldest major in the United States, owes $18 billion. The restructuring of that debt will be arguably the biggest challenge faced by these companies as they attempt to reorganize.

Not long after Sept. 11, 2001, the most pessimistic analysts were predicting the inevitable bankruptcy of all of the country's top-10 carriers, with the possible exception of the perennially, maddeningly successful Southwest. Four years later those doomsayers are halfway there, even as the mechanisms of this en masse tailspin have been different than anticipated. Now that passenger volume has surpassed pre-attack levels, and in fact has been that way for some time, a direct Chapter 11-Sept. 11 correlation is an increasingly difficult one to make. Planes are full while losses continue to mount. Of late, the single critical factor has been the surging cost of jet fuel. Labor and fuel are the two biggest pieces of an airline's cost pie; sadly, billions of dollars' worth of wage and benefit concessions have been eaten by petroleum prices skyrocketing past $70 a barrel -- a gallon of Jet-A kerosene now costs twice what it did two years ago.

You can blame Iraq if you want to, but it's more than just that. Forgive me a moment for tipping things politically, but as the world thirsts for ever more oil, the ill-conceived invasion of a Middle Eastern country together with a hideously mismanaged energy policy have done nothing to stabilize energy prices. Handicapping an already beleaguered industry by imposing burdensome taxes and security surcharges hasn't helped either. Carriers are seeking relief from the present 4.3 cent-per-gallon jet fuel tax, but that alone won't be enough.

If I sound defeated and depressed, that's because I am. Having to report on this latest and perhaps darkest setback to date is a bit like writing about my own funeral. From the consumer's perspective, air travel remains a buyer's market. At least for now, while the embattled majors are forced to match rock-bottom fares with their low-cost competitors, bargains abound. But as for me, and thousands of other pilots, it becomes more and more unlikely that I'll ever fly a plane again.

Here in Rome, though, I've had more than ample distraction from the psychological ravages of an imploded career.

Setting aside their contributions to the arts, as well as their impassioned, histrionic attention to the value of aesthetic, the Italians deserve praise for two things. First, they have relatively little trouble pronouncing the surname "Santosuosso." (If you don't understand what I'm talking about, shame for not being more intimately familiar with this column and the personal history of its author. And if you can't fathom how rewarding it might be to hear this pronunciation, free of apprehensions and without accompanying smirks and looks of pity, you were never an Italian kid with a funny name in a prep school. I'm told the old family bones reside about two hours south of here, near Avellino on the back side of Vesuvius.)

Second, Italians have taken a surprising interest in aviation of late, duly reflected by the unexpected popularity of my column here and the release of my book by an Italian publisher. "Chiedilo al pilota -- Tutto quello che avete sempre voluto sapere sui voli aerie," is a hot seller. It wouldn't be fair or accurate to take all the credit, though. This past summer's surge of crashes is mostly the culprit. Proximity to Greece and Sicily, sites of two of August's disasters, has for better or worse thrust air travel into the headlines of Italian newspapers and magazines.

One of those magazines is called Internazionale, a well-regarded newsweekly that reprints a translated (and truncated) version of Salon's "Chiedilo al Pilota" every Friday. The publishing wing of Internazionale is named Fusi Orari, and they are the ones who've put out my book. The text was organized and edited by Alberto Notarbartolo, Fusi's direttore editoriale gran maestro -- with whom I've shared many e-mails over the months, discussing in equal parts the finer points of airplanes and the best older songs of Billy Bragg.

My plans to visit Italy provided Alberto and Fusi the opportunity to arrange a short promotional tour, which turned out to be quite a whirlwind. Possibly it's an Italian custom to decadently flatter one's guests, but I wasn't quite prepared for all the attention.

On Monday afternoon I'm met at my four-star hotel and assigned two handlers. First is Antonella, one of Internazionale's staff. She's in charge of my schedule and appointment logistics. The second person is my interpreter, a woman with red hair named Fiammetta. Fiammetta's usual clients are people like Jennifer Lopez, Russell Crowe and Michael Stipe. She mentions an assignment escorting the director Ridley Scott. This time she's stuck with me -- an ex-pilot from the Boston suburbs wearing 15-year-old shoes.

Fiammetta (little flame), who wears a somewhat ageless air of elegantly declining beauty, mentions that she spent 13 years working as the personal assistant for "a famous Italian director." She mentions this brusquely, as if to say, "I doubt you've heard of him." Well, maybe I haven't, but when asked who this famous director might be, what do you think she answers? I'm unsure whether to believe her, until later she presents a photograph. The picture shows a slightly younger Fiammetta, seated arm in arm with Federico Fellini on a plush sofa in a hotel lobby.

And there I go, roaring off in a taxi around Rome, en route to five national television shows, four newspapers, three radio stations -- with my own personal liaison and a translator to the stars.

At 18:00 on Tuesday I'm scheduled for my "presentazione" at Feltrinelli, one of Italy's mainstay booksellers. The store is in a large central shopping mall, which for Rome means a 300-year-old building across the street from the second-century Column of Marcus Aurelius, a few blocks between Trevi Fountain in one direction and the Pantheon in the other. (The Feltrinelli company, I'm told, is noted for owning the international rights to "Doctor Zhivago," from which it has made millions on print and film royalties.)

The presentation is basically a Q&A session, and as will be the case during every one of my media interviews, the conversation revolves around the recent spate of disasters and the reputations of the involved airlines. Essentially I hear the same questions that I've been fielding for two months from Americans, imbued with the passion and urgency of those in whose backyard two of the crashes occurred. And this is Italy, where low-cost carriers, while popular and rapidly expanding, are still a novelty whose trust is yet to be earned. People are genuinely suspicious and afraid of flying in a way I've not experienced at home.

The session opens like this:

Q: There have been several terrible crashes over the past two months or so. What do these accidents mean? Why so many? Are these small airlines safe?

A: The bunching of numerous incidents during a short window of time is certainly of concern, but it's also distracting. It's important to look at these events, awful as they are, in the larger context. Seven serious crashes over two months, although alarming, is not the same as seven crashes every two months. The number of commercial departures worldwide is approximately 40,000 daily, carrying upwards of 2 million people -- increasing at a rate of about 10 flights (give or take 150 passengers) per day. If you're prone to see a terrible omen in last summer's spell of calamities, consider this: Worldwide in 1985 there were 27 crashes and 2,392 fatalities. Among these were several of aviation's most infamous tragedies, including the JAL 747 nightmare near Tokyo (520 dead), Arrow Air in Newfoundland (256), and the Air India terrorist bombing over the North Atlantic (329). Thus far in 2005 the event and fatality totals stand at a comparatively paltry 21 and 732. Six of those 21 involved Soviet-built freighters that went down in places like Congo and Sudan.

(As for '85, it's a shame that two of indie rock's most brilliant-ever albums, "New Day Rising" and "Psychocandy," made their debut in such an otherwise notorious year.)

End of exchange. (Yes, the parenthetical was left out when talking to the Italians, though maybe I should've kept it.) The point, I hope, is taken to heart by everybody, regardless of what country they're in.

As for those allegedly negligent airlines -- we've been over this during the past couple of columns -- it's important to look at companies individually and not stereotype an entire category of carrier. The European Union is in the process of drafting an airline blacklist. The idea is a good one, but will need to be implemented fairly and carefully. (Soon, the only way to reach Mali or Cameroon might be on Air France. Is this politics or safety?) Concerns aside, the EU is a step in front of the American policy, which bans companies based on their country of origin, irrespective of an airline's specific operational standards.

After the Q&A at Feltrinelli comes another round of interviews and appearances. On Tuesday I'm penciled in for Canale 5's "Tutte le mattine" with the locally famous Maurizio Costanzo, a pudgy and irascible talk-show host roughly equivalent to Oprah in popularity. A fixture in Italy for decades, the outspoken Constanzo once survived a car bomb assassination attempt by the mob. Alberto warns me, half jokingly, "Be good, he's the most powerful man in Italy!" So now I'm picturing this volatile little man wedged behind a desk, angrily pounding his fist while dressed like Mussolini.

Notoriety, it occurred to me while cruising from show to show with my appointed minders, is a strange and challenging thing -- in any degree and especially for me. To help explain precisely what I mean, we need to revisit a conversation I had almost 20 years ago with a young girl named Dorothy Meyer. That's the same Dorothy, you might recall -- the spindly, discomfitingly beautiful model with a flair for the preposterous -- with whom I shared a near-death experience in 1986, recollected in Salon last July. One day around that same time, she and I were sitting in a Burger King restaurant on Boylston Street, in Boston's Back Bay. For reasons that escape me today, our topic of conversation was fame -- all its pleasures and pains, rewards and pitfalls, as only we could possibly imagine them. In her trademark way, Dorothy was waxing theatrical about the "sacrifices" she'd made in order to be a teenage fashion model earning thousands of dollars per photo session.

I was, all the while, bitter as hell -- crushed by the fact this exotic beauty, no matter how pretentious or annoying, had refused to indulge me romantically while nearly getting me killed. And so, in the heat of insatiable lust and jealousy, I blurted out something stupid. "Just you wait," I said to Dorothy, quasi-jokingly, choking on a French fry, "until the day when I'm a famous airline pilot."

I have no idea what I meant by that, or why I remember it so clearly, but Dorothy, who was always quicker and more attuned to amusing foible than I was, instantly burst out laughing and could hardly stop.

The gaffe, which seems so obvious today, wasn't that Patrick Smith wouldn't or couldn't become a "famous airline pilot," but that nobody could. The idea of a famous airline pilot was, and remains, ludicrous on the face of it.

Just the same, and all these years later, it makes me think: What is it that commercial flying needs and misses more than anything else right now? The answer, I believe, is a hero.

But whoever that hero (savior, maybe, is the better word) turns out to be, if anybody, it won't be an airline pilot. For just as the days of zeppelins and tuxedoed stewards are consigned to the past, so is any notion of commercial flight as anything but pedestrian. And from such a realm there's simply no room for, or the means of, fame of a meaningful and lasting kind. That's true of many professions, but it's a difficult reality for us fliers who happen also to be airflight evangelicals.

Aviation's most recognized voices and faces -- astronauts, daredevils, adventurers and writers -- have always drawn from the romantic and exciting sides of flying. The exploits of Lindbergh and Yeager are relics of ages gone by, while the talents of a Gann or Saint-Exupéry speak more to the sky itself -- they are famous not quite as pilots, but as authors -- than to the ignoble, glamourless task of carrying 200 disgruntled people from Cleveland to Seattle.

A short list of airline pilot names springs to mind -- Testrake, Grubbs, Haynes and such. But these men, unlike those others, owe their recognition not to triumph but to episodes of horror -- hijackings, catastrophes, and hard-won survival. Bravery? Nerves of steel? Who cares? This isn't the kind of notoriety any pilot wants.

But I'm afraid we're stuck with it.

All of this is going through my mind as my taxi spins through the ancient marble Disneyworld of Rome's landmarks. And by this time I'm hungry. As a connoisseur of the finest ironies, even the contrived kind, my mission becomes clear, unavoidable, and a travesty of travesties in this city of gastronomic extravagance -- to stop and have dinner in Burger King.

Which I almost do.

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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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