Ask the pilot

Live on network TV: Yet another insignificant flight incident!

Published January 13, 2006 12:30PM (EST)

Originally planned for this week was a 2005 retrospective -- a chance to celebrate and lampoon the best, worst or otherwise most memorable air travel stories of the year just ended. As these things go, there's often a fine line between amusement and tedium, and we haven't got Nathaniel Heatwole or Tom Ridge to kick around anymore.

In a way, the most noteworthy event from 2005 was a lack thereof: that we managed to complete our fourth straight year without a catastrophic plane crash on North American soil. At the same time, mishaps and misadventures seemed to be exceptionally prevalent. From last summer's spate of accidents overseas, to airline bankruptcies, to December's shooting at Miami International Airport, air travel issues are, if not for the best reasons, front and center in the public consciousness.

How we interpret all of this attention is where things get shaky and, for somebody like me, exasperating. Said a friend on the phone recently: "Every time we turn around these days a plane is going down!" Earlier that morning, news had broken that more than a hundred people, most of them schoolchildren, had been killed in the crash of a DC-9 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. The papers were having a field day with Nigeria's spotty safety record, now standing at 10 disasters in 10 years. (To put this in perspective, Africa as a whole accounts for less than 3 percent of total air traffic.)

But in the fuller worldwide context, as a percentage of total flights, large-scale tragedies are scarcer than ever. Of the minor variety, no more are occurring than ought to be expected in an age when 2 billion people fly globally each year.

If we're misinterpreting things, it's largely because the media has taken to blowing minor events and predicaments wildly out of proportion. That, if anything, was this column's most persistent theme over the past 12 months, fueled by a steady parade of nonstories turned spectacles. Only a year ago, you might remember, terrorists were trying to blind pilots with laser beams.

I assumed the newspapers and networks would better police themselves after September's mindless overplay of a JetBlue emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport, but that was wishful thinking. As we saw here a week ago, even when the press corps keeps its cool, the ranks of so-called citizen journalism are capable of pushing things past the tipping point.

On Dec. 20 I awoke to a front-page story in the Boston Globe about a Midwest Airlines jetliner that had returned to Boston's Logan Airport the previous evening after a minor problem. To my astonishment, I learned that the landing had garnered live coverage on both CNN and MSNBC.

The incident was described -- in the Globe and many other places -- as an "emergency landing." It was not. The Midwest crew never declared an emergency and requested no special attention from airport authorities. Massport, the landlord for Logan, dispatched vehicles on its own behest, just in case. So it goes: Report a soda can missing from the galley, and airports will typically call out the troops. Sirens and lights aside, the plane made a routine precautionary landing. The malfunction? A bearing failure in the right main gear. I can't overemphasize just how nonthreatening this was. The Globe's story was embellished with outrageous quotes from teenage passengers, one of whom described the airplane as having felt "out of control" as it prepared for landing.

From a pilot's point of view, the Midwest ballyhoo was irritatingly similar to the one involving JetBlue three months prior. In both cases, chances of the aircraft failing to land safely were negligible. No matter, it is quickly becoming a phenomenon that any time an aircraft makes an unscheduled touchdown, regardless of how insignificant the trouble, it is carried live on network TV and splashed across the front page.

Last I checked, humanity has been flying for more than a century now, yet we seem to affect a Dark Ages mentality any time we get around airplanes. The how and why of this ignorance falls on several shoulders, but clearly the media, for its part, has lost all grip, spinning situations that present little threat of serious injury as real-time dramas of impending calamity.

Such hype is offensive and insulting; it preys on people's lack of knowledge and disrespects the victims of actual emergencies. The JetBlue landing, in all its nothingness, received more intensive coverage, and left a more lasting impression, than the Dec. 19 seaplane crash in Miami that killed 20 people. And, for good measure, such a saturation of fallacy inspires comments like that from my friend: "Every time we turn around these days a plane is going down!" Even if they're not.

It would have been nice for 2005 to close on a positive note. Alas, with the news from Florida and Nigeria, it did not. Still, we need to reiterate two things:

In North America, we've now gone four full calendar years without a major crash -- effectively our safest-ever stretch. In November 2001, American Airlines flight 587 went down in a neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., killing 265 people. Since then, no more than 21 fatalities have been recorded in a single wallop.

Globally, look at this way: Two decades ago, in 1985, there were half as many commercial aircraft in the air as today. By the end of that year, 27 crashes had resulted in the deaths of just under 2,400 people. For 2005, with twice as many planes carrying twice as many passengers, the numbers stand at 25 crashes and 1,003 fatalities. That's one sample, but the average annual number of fatal events hasn't changed much in recent years. The volume of flights, on the other hand, has doubled. How safe we are, and how safe we feel, are different things.

Having established that, we should look to the future with a slight degree of uneasiness. Certain industry trends are at best discomfiting and at worst increasingly dangerous. Most worrisome is the growing scourge of airline outsourcing, which reared its head again in the Dec. 26 Alaska Airlines in-flight decompression. As it happened, the event was not the life-or-death drama some have made it out to be. But a few feet either way, and it could have been.

Outsourcing has become a topic du jour, written up everywhere from the pages of USA Today to Mother Jones. There's an element of overreaction in many of these exposés, but the matter is fully deserving of heavy scrutiny. This column is sometimes interpreted as a needless shill for the airlines and commercial flying; I see it as an alternative to the prevailing presentation of air travel as a hive of danger and malpractice. On this issue, for a change, the scaremongers and I share some common ground, though the safety aspects are, to me, only part of the debate. The greater issues of globalization and the decimation of American union labor are no less important facets of the outsourcing discussion.

From the safety standpoint, there are two ways of addressing things -- either through long-shot efforts to reduce the amount of outsourcing or by increasing the oversight and regulation of airline subcontractors. Either way, it won't happen quickly or without government intervention.

What will propel change faster than you can say "FAA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" is a catastrophe. In 1996, the crash of a ValuJet DC-9 was linked to the outsourced handling of oxygen canisters. The subcontractor, and ValuJet too, were rightly skewered during the investigation, but outsourcing was not yet a fixture on the media's -- or the public's -- radar screens. It is different today, and this time the shakeout, for an industry already in turmoil, would be tectonic.

But if one thing shall endure, it will be my penchant for in-column tangents and reader quizzes. In the spirit of auld lang syne, which is how this column started out, let's ring in the new year with both.

I like to think my quizzes are becoming more and more Google resistant, but we'll see. The first reader to e-mail with the correct answers wins a copy of "Ask the Pilot." First, some background, in the form of one of those diversions that 100 percent of readers adore:

The Boston Globe, my hometown newspaper, recently ran a front-page Living section story about a 31-year-old entrepreneur, Clay Siegert, who invented a trivia board game about 1980s popular culture. It's called "The 80's Game."

I believe the people responsible for "Trivial Pursuit" tried this already, but, I know, that's so old guard. Siegert realizes the key to success is garish colors and total immersion within the sphere of sports and popular culture. But my question is this: Why are the majority of people who rhapsodize about, and capitalize on, 1980s pop culture, generally those too young to have had a firsthand understanding of what the '80s really were like? And the focus, especially with regard to music, is always on silly kitsch instead of the vibrant and prolific underground that existed at the time. Damn these smarmy kids, none of whom has the good sense of decency to own a copy of "New Day Rising" or a DVD of "Blue Velvet."

Siegert researched his game with the aid of two siblings, ages 29 and 27. "He would make this game for his own generation," explains Globe writer Meredith Goldstein. "A time when their tape decks played A Flock of Seagulls ..."

Maybe, but A Flock of Seagulls, the synth-rock foursome known for their gravity-defying coifs and the one-hit wonder "I Ran," -- shown here in the most unintentionally hilarious promotional photo ever taken -- had their 15 minutes of fame in 1982. Siegert and siblings would have been 6, 4 and 2 years old respectively. Yet, if I showed up at one of Siegert's parties and tried to join a round of his '80s game, his friends would give me dirty looks and think I was too old.

Right, a quiz. Take this, Clay Siegert:

1. Of history's 10 worst air disasters, six took place in the 1980s. What were they?

2. In January 1981, the infamous Iran hostages saga (until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, arguably the biggest continuous news story of my lifetime) came to an end when the 52 remaining U.S. captives were released. On which commercial airline, and which type of aircraft, were they winged to freedom?

3. In 1985, a gripping two-week drama ensued after a TWA Boeing 727 was hijacked on a flight between Athens and Rome. An American serviceman was killed, and the plane spent several days crisscrossing the Middle East before passengers and crew were finally let go. Which electro-industrial dance band later wrote a song about this hijacking?

4. Only two commercial airliners were ever built with four aft-mounted engines -- two on either side of the tail. One of these planes appears as part of the cover art on a somewhat popular album from 1982. Name the aircraft, the group and the album.

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Re: Jeremy Hermanns, Alaska Airlines and blog censorship

My son and his girlfriend were on the Alaska Airlines flight that lost cabin pressure. His reaction to Jeremy Hermanns? "What a pussy." According to my son there was no loud noise, and only a plasticky odor in the cabin, not a smell of fuel. Most passengers were extremely calm. Even his drama queen girlfriend remained calm.

-- George Brims

What you hear in Hermanns' original post is a passenger; a customer, the person whose life a pilot holds in his hand, speaking with human honesty about the experience -- the raw reaction and emotion of someone who went through this experience. And that has value. Bloggers aren't necessarily mini-media; they are people, citizens, constituents and customers just talking. Sometimes bloggers should be read not as would-be journalists, but as man-on-the-street.

-- Jeff Jarvis

Re: The 2004 Spanish elections and terrorism

Post-publication note from the author: Numerous readers took issue with John Dellaportas' letter regarding the Spanish reaction to the Madrid bombings, pointing out that surveys have consistently shown the Spanish turned against the conservatives not because of al-Qaida threats, but because the government lied about the attacks. Officials tried to blame homegrown Basque separatists for the explosions, and voters reacted angrily once the truth became clear. That's much more defiance, one could easily contend, than American voters were able to muster in the face of our own leadership's falsehoods and "bad intelligence."

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Finally, as a last gesture to the year just passed, and for the benefit of those who missed them, if not to appease my hunger for self-indulgence, I'll give you my picks for the five best "Ask the Pilot" columns of 2005. Most of these are from the summer, when readership tends to dip, so here's your chance to catch up:

1. July 1: Love, Death and Other Near Misses

2. April 1: Office Paper and Other Misfortunes

3. July 18 - Aug. 5: Airlines and Identity series, Parts 1-4

Part 1. The Generic Meaningless Swoosh Thing

Part 2. The Best and Worst of Airline Names

Part 3. Slogans, Centaurs and "Touch Lines"

Part 4. The Yin and Yang of Airline Identity

4. Aug. 12: Madness in Toronto -- God, Lightning and Aaron Brown

5. March 18: Crying "Fire" at 35,000 Feet

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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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