Ask the pilot

While U.S. airlines stumble, the rest of the world sprints.

Published February 3, 2006 11:31AM (EST)

Believe it or not, Boeing and Airbus combined to sell more jetliners in 2005 than in any other year in history -- a total of 2,057 orders were placed, besting the previous record of 1,631, set in 1989. Considering the near bankruptcy of the entire U.S. airline industry, that news is bound to perplex many Americans. We're perhaps overly familiar with the plight of our home carriers and tend not to realize that overseas, where the bulk of last year's sales went, these are exceptionally prosperous times.

Their eyes peeled toward Asia and Europe, the Big Two plane makers see a bright future ahead -- even, if not especially, for their priciest, top-of-the-line widebody aircraft. Later this year, the mammoth Airbus A380 will go into service with Singapore Airlines. Boeing's ultra-high-tech 787 continues to rack up orders, the A350 hot on its heels. But of all the news to emerge of late, the most intriguing story, and the one with the greatest potential to (again) alter the course of commercial aviation, is the announcement of an advanced new 747, for now designated the 747-8, with deliveries scheduled to begin in 2009.

Having shaken up the aerospace world with its back-to-the-future gamble, the pressing question for Boeing is: who's going to buy the thing?

As commitments for the Airbus A380 already indicate, orders for the most expensive high-end jumbo jets are likely to come primarily from the most prestigious, high-end airlines. Which airlines are deserving of such status, and how they came to earn it, is somewhat subjective, but loosely speaking it eliminates virtually all of those from the United States. Don't expect American, United, Northwest or Delta to be leading the charge, no matter how splendid a product the new Boeing may be. Only two U.S. passenger carriers currently operate 747s, down from as many as 12, and nobody expects the trend to reverse.

Yes, a portion of this reluctance is owed directly to fiscal devastation. Blame it on Iraq, those no-good greedy employees, or the alignment of the cosmos, but in 2004 the top 10 U.S. carriers collectively lost about $9 billion. But there's also a logical market cause: we no longer see many 747s in this country for the simple reason that they don't make economic sense. Not so long ago, you could stand atop the Pan Am Worldport at JFK and watch a half dozen or more U.S.-registered 747s take off in a row. Then came fragmentation of the transoceanic hubs and spokes: more departures from more cities, using smaller planes.

Meanwhile, that United and Northwest are the two 747 holdouts is no coincidence. Both maintain extensive route structures into Asia, including intra-Asian systems hubbed out of Tokyo-Narita, where this plane is still a good and necessary competitor. Passenger volumes on certain pairings demand nothing less than the largest equipment available. (If you've ever attempted to fly standby between Narita and Bangkok, one of most consistently overbooked city pairs on earth, you'll know what I'm talking about.) Don't be shocked if United or Northwest opts for a token number of 747-8 replacements -- company survival permitting -- though I doubt the orders will be huge.

Justified or not, it's a depressing story when you think about it. After all, it wasn't some maverick CEO from Singapore or Dubai or London who got the 747 program started all those years ago. It was an American, Juan Trippe, the visionary leader of Pan Am, who requested -- nay, demanded -- that Boeing build him nothing less than the biggest and finest airliner ever constructed. Which they did.

Both Trippe and Boeing had been through this before, in the late '50s with the arrival of the 707. Again it was Trippe and Pan Am at the vanguard, putting this revolutionary plane into service between New York and Paris while rivals still plodded along in old DC-7s and Constellations. The advent of the 707 and then the 747 were two of the most important turning points in the history of civil aviation, with Pan Am as launch customer, if not outright instigator, for both.

In its heydey, Pan Am was the closest thing to what might be called "an airline of planet Earth," though even this is too restricting when you remember that it once sold tickets to the moon for a never-realized Space Shuttle dream. OK, it was a publicity stunt, but it's also the sort of thing we've come to miss around here. In some ways Trippe passed the baton to Richard Branson, the flamboyant frontman of Virgin Atlantic. If you ask me, comparing Branson to Trippe is a bit like comparing P.T. Barnum to Bill Gates, though if Branson manages to succeed with this little brainchild, we'll revisit that assessment.

Pan Am was first and foremost beholden to its stockholders and bottom line, but it also had a secondary mission, that of de facto ambassador at large, carrying the U.S. flag to places none of its competitors could or would go. From Karachi to Monrovia to Pago Pago, Pan Am's planes were there at one point or another, hearts-and-minds missionaries to the planet's far corners. Visiting some of those outposts today, it's not unusual to spy weatherbeaten remnants of Pan Am's signature blue globe on discarded ground equipment.

Pan Am was also the last American passenger line to offer scheduled service to all six continents simultaneously, something it stopped doing near the end of its life, as it began shedding entire regions -- United took Asia, Delta took Europe -- in fire-sale survival schemes. Pan Am was gone altogether after 1991, and nobody has stepped up since. Continental has come the closest, only to postpone introduction of its capstone -- a route between Newark and Nigeria -- set for last spring.

For now, the Six Continent Club looks like this:

Air France
British Airways
Malaysia Airlines
South African Airways

Nobody likes asterisks, so I left out Virgin Atlantic. Look at the map and you'll see that the Caribbean island Tobago, of Trinidad and Tobago, one of Virgin's once-weekly leisure stops, rests only a few miles from mainland South America. Should it count? You decide.

Surprisingly absent are Lufthansa and KLM, which avoid Oceania, as well as Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Qantas, all taking a pass on South America. Once upon a time, Aeroflot was the most dauntless Six Continent member (and the largest by a wide margin), but since the Soviet breakup and without the political impetus behind routes to places like Burundi and Nicaragua, it has been become far less ambitious (and much smaller).

And by "Six Continents" we mean North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania (the latter taking in Australia, New Zealand, or in the case of Air France, French Polynesia). Yes, I know, technically, if not aero-commercially, there are seven continents. Although the polar routings between South America and Australia pass closely along its contours, no carriers fly to Antarctica -- though back in the day, Aeroflot was known to ski in sporadically. As covered here some months ago, Air New Zealand once ran popular Antarctic sightseeing flights, until one of its DC-10s slammed into Mount Erebus, killing 257 people.

The Five Continent Club is considerably more extensive, with no fewer than 17 members from Alitalia to EgyptAir. Again, however, we discover only two entries from the United States, this time United and Continental. Northwest, its Asian wanderings notwithstanding, visits only three continents in total; U.S. Airways, a mere two. At Delta and American, it's four. Southwest? One. A look at our biggest players:

American Airlines (North and South America, Europe, Asia)
Delta (North and South America, Europe, Asia)
United (all except Africa)
Continental (all except Africa)
Northwest (North America, Europe, Asia)

Continents aside, doubtless many of you are asking which airline flies to more countries than any other. Not as easy as it sounds. The vagaries of Pacific and Caribbean island nationhood, along with the complexities of airline alliances and subsidiary operations, make that extremely difficult to determine. Air France would be my guess.

The whole which-airlines-go-where discussion brings up one of the more vexing and misleading things encountered in the travel pages of newspapers and magazines. In the "How to Get There" boxes that accompany most destination features, we're commonly told all sorts of half-truths: that United flies to South Africa, for instance, or Northwest to Ghana. "The cheapest fares from Boston to Cairo," claimed one paper's Sunday travel section recently, next to a story about Egypt, "are $795 on Delta Air Lines." That's a great price, but Delta doesn't fly to Cairo. What's shown, usually, are fare quotes taken from online sources that bundle code-share affiliations under a single name. Indeed Delta is more than happy to sell you a ticket to Cairo, though in truth you'll be riding on its SkyTeam partner, Air France. The carriers themselves don't make this any clearer on their Web sites. American Airlines' downloadable timetable advertises service to, among other places, Abu Dhabi and the Ivory Coast. Only through the fine print do you realize these flights are run by alliance partners.

Where scheduled operations fail to venture, charters sometimes dare. Indianapolis-based ATA has flown on-demand military contracts worldwide for years. Ditto for World Airways, an MD-11/DC-10 operator headquartered in Virginia. World's assignments routinely take crews as far afield as Afghanistan and Angola. Elsewhere, Germany's LTU is famous for its far and wide leisure charters. Same for Lauda Air, the long-haul holiday specialist from Vienna.

But if the spirit of Pan Am's far-flung voyaging is carried on by any American successors, the cargo realm is the place to look. UPS and FedEx, owners of 325 and 265 jetliners, respectively, maintain substantial hubs in the Middle and Far East. FedEx runs its AsiaOne hub at Subic Bay, Philippines, and its EuroOne center at Paris-Charles de Gaulle. It recently commenced the first-ever freighter nonstops between mainland China and Europe with a daily Shanghai-Frankfurt trip.

DHL is another example. Well, sort of, since the shipping giant does not own any single large airline, instead preferring to contract with numerous independents in different countries, which then outfit their planes in DHL's red and yellow livery. Neither is DHL any longer a U.S. entity, although it was started by three Americans in 1969 -- Adrian Dalsey, Larry Hillblom and Robert Lynn, from whom the company's initials are taken. Those who've traveled know that DHL's name and logo are more widely recognized than those of either UPS or FedEx, reaching into the globe's most remote and distant regions.

Perhaps most interesting of all is New York-based Atlas Air. Little known outside the biz, Atlas specializes in heavy-lift charters and lease arrangements to just about anywhere and everywhere. Its 30-plus aircraft are the industry's largest all-cargo 747 fleet (and their tail markings, I'll add, are resplendent).

All right, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the seeming isolationist tendencies of American passenger carriers is to some degree the product of geography. North America, if you haven't noticed, sits between two enormous oceans. The long-haul efforts in crossing those oceans present all sorts of risky and expensive challenges, and they are not to be embarked upon whimsically. And we're a big nation. Five hours east of California is New Jersey; five hours east of Germany is Turkmenistan. Flying to Tunisia strikes the average American as exotic; for the average Italian it's a 90-minute flight and a long weekend. And admittedly, nostalgic reminiscing about the past is a foolish and naive way of analyzing the present. For all its intrepid trailblazing, what did Pan Am end up with? Bankruptcy and liquidation in 1991.

Nonetheless, the floundering of our country's airlines, while everyone else's seem to be soaring, feels on some levels like an indictment of our entrepreneurial spirit.

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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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