Ask the pilot

The Mountain Goats invade the pilot's airspace. Also: Will the new all-luxury airlines survive?

Published November 11, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

"Love the column; been reading it since you started. But the obsessive music posts have got to go. I own 1,500 CDs, so believe me I sympathize with the need to talk about music. Nevertheless, this week's article was excruciating."

That from reader Matt Miller on the heels of my Nov. 4 airplanes-in-music segment. This column is known and hopefully appreciated for its frequent diversions, and while nobody has asked that I justify this practice, allow me to do so anyway:

Salon is a magazine covering news, politics, lifestyles and the arts. It's not an aviation site. Frankly, I have no desire to write for an audience with a predisposed interest in flight, but fitting a weekly article to the appetites and curiosities of non-aerophiles requires some creative handiwork and a need, at times, to chart an unusual course. Across the world, more than 3 million people fly every day; air travel impacts our lives, cultures and economies like almost nothing else. Yet there are very few media sources out there willing to peer beneath the tarmac, as it were, and take people beyond the typical business page reportage on bankruptcies, labor troubles and safety scandals. At heart, my mission has always been to make airplanes, airports and the airlines fascinating in ways that people do not expect -- to uncover the strange beauty of what, to the layperson, appears to be a purely mundane and prosaic industry. To that end have come conversations, some more tangential than others, about everything from religion to graphic design to, yes, music.

And with that taken care of, a complimentary copy of "Ask the Pilot" is presently winging its way to David Pille of Houston, who was first in line to correctly name the two 1980s songs that paid a lyrical tribute to the band Hüsker Dü. The answers:

1. "Somethin' to Dü," by Minneapolis rivals the Replacements, from the scrappiest garage record ever made, "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash." Released in 1981, the song predated the Hüskers' rise to art-rock sainthood by at least a few years. "It ain't nothin' new," growls Paul Westerberg in an underhanded salute. "It's somethin to Dü!" (It's a serviceable cut, but the album's strongest moment comes at the end with "Raised in the City," one of the most euphorically raucous anthems of all time .) A Replacements discography also includes at least one airplane song, "Waitress in the Sky," from 1985's "Tim." In the final stanza, a reference to the old Republic Airlines, today part of Northwest, was switched to "Reunion" after worries of libel.

2. "The Thing That Only Eats Hippies," by the Dead Milkmen. This was never a band to take very seriously, but the Milkmen are owed acknowledgment for the line: "Now he's got a sweet tooth for long hair/ So Bob and Greg and Grant you best beware!" It's a playful recognition of the Hüskers' genre-busting blend of sonic power and hippie sensibilities. And, of course, there was Grant Hart's hair.

Numerous e-mailers cited Sonic Youth's "Screaming Skull," as well as the Posies' rather lovely "Grant Hart." However, both of these are 1990s vintage. I chose to have an '80s cutoff because I've always despised Sonic Youth so much that I refuse to let them into my contest. All told, no fewer than 14 different songs have, at one time or another, referenced Hüsker Dü.

Oddly, perhaps, in three separate discussions of aviation-themed songs I've neglected to mention one of the most enchanting, and perhaps my personal favorite. The honor goes to a beautiful and in some ways terrifying song called "International Small Arms Traffic Blues," from indie rock darlings the Mountain Goats. "My love is like a Cuban plane," sings John Darnielle in an eerie, bewitching deadpan, "flying from Havana, up the Florida coast to the 'Glades; Soviet made."

Darnielle scores extra points for remembering that Cuba's aircraft are primarily of Russian construction, though the country's national airline, Cubana, now leases the occasional Boeing and Airbus to augment its graying fleet of Antonovs, Yaks and Ilyushins.

Mountain Goats bassist Peter Hughes grew up with aviation. His father was a flight-test technician for McDonnell Douglas, and worked on everything from the DC-10 through the military C-17 programs. That may or may not explain why the band's songs are so perfect for the iPod while traveling, or why Hughes, to my pleasant surprise, turns out to be an "Ask the Pilot" reader.

"My feelings about flying are complicated," he explains. "What I like best are those rare occasions when, at the airport, the outside world punctures that hermetically sealed bubble of bad food, bad books, bad movies, bad overheard cellphone conversations: When there's no Jetway, and suddenly you walk off the plane into the open air. When you're sitting on the tarmac while a guy in a hovering pod floats over you, twin beams of light piercing the murk of de-icing fluid. That's my airplane fantasy. I want to be that guy!"

In the past you've lamented an "isolationist" attitude among U.S. airlines. No scheduled passenger carriers fly to Africa, you've pointed out, and whole other regions of the world are neglected, while foreign airlines have no qualms. Points taken, but every time I crack open the paper these days I'm reading about new flights to India, China, Vietnam, Brazil and so forth. Are things finally changing?

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, it did seem that many American carriers were backpedaling in foreign markets. One of the first things Delta did, for instance, was close its stations in Cairo and Dubai. In retrospect, this was probably the result of more straightforward economic factors than a case of xenophobic cold feet, and I regret playing up the isolationist angle (a Q&A on this matter, now in dire need of revision, appears in my book). If there's profit to be made, be it in Kalispell or Kazakhstan, it's naive to think airlines wouldn't be hungry to fly there.

"Airlines are not philosophically opposed to serving areas of the world for any reason other than money," says J.A. Donoghue of Air Transport World, the industry's leading trade publication. "It may appear that other issues are at play, but starting up and maintaining an international route is a major investment." Donoghue notes that many of the countries receiving expanded service, including those listed above, represent some of the planet's fastest-growing economies. "It's the 'Build it and they will come' syndrome," he says.

Some of the struggling legacy carriers have been reducing flights domestically -- in effect, surrendering a certain market share to their nimble, low-cost rivals -- and refocusing overseas, where yields are higher and the competitive matrix is, for the time being, less ruthless. Delta has started flying to Chennai, India, has reinstated service to Rio de Janeiro, and will launch routes to Israel and Ukraine next spring. Part of the appeal is not having JetBlue, AirTran or Southwest to contend with in cities like Tel Aviv and Kiev. The new routes are part of Delta's Chapter 11 restructuring plans, through which it intends to grow international flying to about 20 percent of total revenue.

Earlier this year, US Airways began calling port in Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala and El Salvador. In late 2004 United commenced service to Ho Chi Minh City -- the first scheduled flights by a U.S. carrier to Vietnam in nearly 30 years. American Airlines opened up Dallas-Osaka, and will introduce Chicago-Shanghai next April.

Most exciting of all, on Nov. 1 Continental Airlines inaugurated nonstops between Newark, N.J., and Delhi, India. The daily pairing, flights CO082/CO083, using a 283-seat Boeing 777, marks the first-ever nonstops between the United States and the subcontinent. (The flightpath goes up over the high Arctic, near the North Pole, then down the other side through Siberia and Kazakhstan. The westbound trip, scheduled for just under 16 hours, is one of the world's longest flights.)

"Continental is making history again today by linking these two great nations," said Jeffery Smisek, Continental's president, speaking in the Hindustan Times. (I include Smisek's quote because it allows me to point out, against my better judgment, that it was made during an event attended by the chief minister of Delhi, Mrs. Sheila Dikshit.)

Not to be outdone, American will debut a Chicago-Delhi route beginning Nov. 15. Northwest, Delta and Air India currently also link the subcontinent with the U.S., but all flights are staged through Europe. Delta serves two Indian cities, Mumbai (Bombay) and Chennai (Madras), both via Paris. United flew to Delhi until fairly recently, and at one point announced plans for a nonstop from O'Hare that never materialized. Air Canada goes Toronto-Delhi using an A340.

About 2 million people travel annually between the U.S. and India. The ongoing expansion of flights is a direct result of an open-skies agreement ratified by the two nations last April. Commercial aviation in India is growing rapidly, and at least three Indian airlines have designs on reciprocal routes into North America.

With the addition of Delhi, Continental has added six transatlantic flights to its network thus far in 2005. It would have been seven, had an intended route to Nigeria not been scrapped. Planned for last June, the Newark-Lagos run would have heralded the return of scheduled U.S. passenger service to Africa. So, for now, Africa remains a final frontier, though it's worth noting that no Arab countries, not even Egypt, exist on our route maps either. "Any local economic or political instability goes on the negative side of the accounting ledger when figuring out whether to go or not," adds J.A. Donoghue. "Some carriers tend to weight these factors higher than others."

Combined, the Africa and Middle East regions make up less than 5 percent of global passenger traffic, so a lack of presence isn't terribly shocking, but airlines like Pan Am and TWA once had reasonable successes there. The closest we come today is Continental's (and soon Delta's) flights to Israel, and Delta's JFK-Istanbul. Elsewhere, we're content with proxy ambassadorship provided by our code-share partners. Numerous European, Asian and African carriers have route networks that reach all six continents.

I'm intrigued by the new, premium-class-only carriers like Eos Airlines. On a busy and lucrative route like New York-London, an all-luxury option seems like a great idea.

Eos Airlines started flying in October between New York's JFK International and London-Stansted. Its three Boeing 757s (secondhand from Mexicana) are outfitted with 48 sleeper seats. Each passenger has his own, 21-square-foot semi-enclosed cubicle, and a pull-up ottoman allows a fellow traveler to join in for dinner or conversation.

That'll sound other world to many domestic flyers, but such appointments are in fact standard first-class fare nowadays on leading carriers. Behold the first-class chambers on Emirates' new A340s. Heck, Swissair was doing the ottoman thing on its MD-11s years ago. But Eos offers something these other airlines don't and cannot: a first-class seat at a business-class price. The airline's unrestricted walk-up fare of $6,500 is about half of what you'd pay to ride in Row 1 aboard British Airways or Virgin Atlantic.

On the heels of Eos comes MAXjet Airways, which on Nov. 1 launched its own JFK-Stansted route using slightly larger Boeing 767s. Again it's an upscale, single-cabin product, but MAXjet's six-abreast seating is designed and priced somewhere between traditional-style business class and economy. MAXjet's roundtrip fares begin at $1,358.

Assorted pundits have taken to calling Eos or MAXjet "a new kind of airline." Actually the concept has been tried before, on more than one occasion. Through a subcontractor called PrivatAir, Lufthansa has been selling a biz-class-only option connecting Dusseldorf, Germany, and Munich, Germany, with Newark. But the prototype may have been MGM Grand Air, a spinoff of the famous motion picture studio and resort property owner. The brainchild of billionaire CEO (and pilot) Kirk Kerkorian, MGM's airline division flew luxed-out DC-8s and 727s between New York and Los Angeles in the early 1990s. (Near the end of his book "The Airport," author James Kaplan takes a ride on MGM, whose cabins were outfitted with decadent quantities of pink leather, plush carpeting, and gilt fixtures in the lavs. "All right, it was Vegas," writes Kaplan of the decor. "But Vegas in a good way.")

If the template was going to succeed anywhere, the New York-L.A. corridor must have looked like a safe bet, but eventually MGM Grand Air fell victim to the mid-'90s recession and went back to an all-charter format.

New York-London is a similarly tempting market -- a busy route with lots of high-end business traffic. Can Eos or MAXjet make it work? Maybe, but it won't be easy. Few people, even corporate types on expense accounts, ever pay a published walk-up fare, and with a mere 48 seats -- a typical widebody jet may contain as many or more premium seats, plus an entire economy section -- Eos will require high load factors (percentage of seats occupied by paying customers) to break even.

"But remember," responds Eos Airlines spokesman Tony Telloni, "that larger transatlantic carriers are not solely focused on the business traveler. With each of 48 seats allocated to a high-end customer means Eos is not burdened by the losing proposition that is coach class."

Then there's freight. As these newcomers battle to woo corporate clients, their competitors garner revenue from underfloor cargo even when seats go empty. Further working against them, the convenience of traveling in and out of London's passenger-friendly Stansted airport is offset by the facility's lack of onward connections. "Where other airlines see cargo as a critical piece of their business," says Telloni, "it's an option that Eos can explore if it wants to, but not one critical to its success."

Lest we forget, a premium-only service existed across the North Atlantic for many years. It was called Concorde. Though never exactly profitable, the supersonic superbird was a popular and consistent seller for British Airways and Air France.

In efforts to recoup the jet's astronomical operating costs, Concorde fares were substantially higher than a ride aboard Eos or MAXjet. On the upside, you got there in half the time, and as a bonus came that 007-style cachet of being able to phone up your mistress or business partner to say, "I just arrived on Concorde." Somehow, "I just arrived on MAXJet" lacks the same sex appeal.

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We conclude with a new feature, Missed Approach, showcasing selected critiques from Ask the Pilot readers:

Missed Approach

Re: JetBlue 292 and the hypercriticizing of "This American Life":

Dear Patrick Smith: You're right to criticize media professionals, sitting safe on the ground, for being panic-mongers, but for the helpless people in the plane, objectivity was way too much to ask. The point of the story was how the people onboard reacted, which was fascinating and instructive: a remarkable blend of restrained emotions, compassion, cool stoicism and, yes, reasoned objectivity. Rather than feeling like another voyeur, I came away from it with a much more positive attitude toward citizens' capacity for mature behavior. That's much more than mere entertainment, and better by far than the average broadcast media product.

-- Carl Pultz (former public radio broadcaster)

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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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