Ask the pilot

How often are passengers in the exit rows called into action? Isn't it safer to face backward in a plane? And other FAQs.

By Patrick Smith

Published June 2, 2006 11:20AM (EDT)

It's important to do this now and again -- get back to basics with an old-style questions-and-answers session. That's how this column got started, some of you might recall. And with 5 and a half million people taking to the air each day around the globe, suffice it to say the pool of incoming queries, in all their innumerable permutations, will never dry up. Besides, this week marks a certain erstwhile airman's 40th birthday, and touching back to Ask the Pilot's roots helps him to feel younger -- by a couple of years, anyway.

Q: Intuitively, I feel that the amount of space allotted to each economy-class passenger just keeps getting smaller. It might be interesting to compare and graph this depressing trend from, say, the days of the Lockheed Constellation to the newest large aircraft.

Changes to passenger space and onboard comforts are more difficult to quantify than you might expect. Over the years, accommodations have varied greatly plane to plane, airline to airline. With certain exceptions, the size of the typical economy-class chair hasn't really changed since jets became popular in the 1960s. Those exceptions include airlines that flirted with five-abreast seating on a 727 or 707, instead of the standard six, or four abreast in a DC-9 rather than five. But these were short-lived schemes, and the cross sections of airliners as you see them today are basically unchanged from 40 years ago. In some cases, particularly the 757 and A320 series, modern six-abreast aircraft are slightly wider than they used to be. The new Airbus A380 will have (in most configurations) the same 10-across floor plan as the 747, but is wider by approximately a foot.

What tends to change aren't the seats themselves but the amount of legroom between the rows, called "pitch" in the biz. Here, too, things have historically been better and worse. Anybody who flew Laker Airways' "SkyTrain" service between New York and London in the late 1970s knows just how tight a cabin could be. Sir Freddie, the flamboyant founder of Laker, who passed away last February, configured his DC-10s with a bone-crushing 345 seats -- about a hundred more than average.

Once upon a time, you would have found 110 seats on a given airline's Boeing 707, compared with 180 on another's. That was mainly a function of pitch. Nowadays the differences aren't as drastic, but airlines will occasionally use pitch in their marketing campaigns. American Airlines' "More Room Throughout Coach" promotion is one recent example. At the time, excess capacity allowed American to remove a certain number of rows from select aircraft, offering up to 5 extra inches of space between your knees and the seat in front of you. This program was scrapped a few years ago when American figured out that cheap tickets, not legroom, are ultimately its passengers' top priority. To oblige that demand and still make a profit meant squeezing in more people.

Other airlines have set apart portions of economy with increased pitch, usually at higher fares. United's "Economy Plus," for instance. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic feature similar cabins-within-a-cabin, as I discussed here in April.

The space issue is, to me, something of a red herring. It often feels that we have less room merely because service levels overall have become so lousy. And not to be overlooked is the ever-increasing girth of the average American. Space is a relative thing.

Dragging Lockheed Constellations and their ilk into the mix isn't really fair, as it compares two entirely different eras of air travel. Certainly, the old propeller liners of the '40s, '50s and early '60s had comparatively oversize seats and generally plush quarters, but these machines were designed with previous generations of travelers in mind. It was the advent of jetliners -- able to haul hundreds of people thousands of miles at astonishing speeds -- that made flying cheap, and by extension less comfortable, for everybody.

If you're looking for particular cabin specs, drop by one of my favorite Web sites, or the individual airline sites. Most include seat maps for each of their aircraft types.

This is something that perhaps only a hardcore enthusiast could understand, but I admit to experiencing a Zen-like contentment any time I study these weird diagrams. I'm not sure if I should admit this in a public forum, but I could spend long stretches of time poring over seat maps of the world's airlines. It's a form of wistful longing, I suppose, knowing I'll never have the means to occupy seat 1A aboard a Singapore Airlines 747 (not "Singapore Air" as Seat Guru presents it), combined with the kind of fetishizing so common among aerophiles. There are many forms of airliner porn out there, but among the most curious are computer programs that allow hobbyists to design their own aircraft interiors, dragging and dropping galleys, lavatories and rows of seats.

Q: I've wondered why passengers on commercial airliners are not seated facing the tail. In the event of a hard landing or a crash, wouldn't it be safer to have your back toward the direction of flight?

Technically it would be safer, you're right. However, polls have revealed that people feel more comfortable pointing forward, and the arrangement has been so institutionalized that airlines are loath to change it. From their point of view, because accidents are so infrequent, upsetting the apple cart isn't worth the trouble.

This gets back to a point made here. An airline turning its seats around would be a widely discussed story, and the company would have to cite safety as one of the reasons for doing it. Airlines will not use safety as a marketing tool unless they absolutely have to.

It's common to find rear-facing seats on military transports and some private craft. At the airlines, some first- and business-class seats also face backward, but this is merely to make better use of space. Angled seats, like those shown here, must be constructed and mounted with added side-load impact protection.

Q: As a frequent (and tall) traveler, I love sitting in the exit rows, but every time the flight attendant asks me to look over the exit instructions card, I think to myself, Yeah, right, how often has that come into play? So I'm asking you: How often does someone in the exit row have to act? It strikes me that most airline emergencies don't result in an escapable crash landing.

Actually they do. They may not be the ones that squeamish fliers tend to remember or have nightmares about, but statistically the majority of airline accidents are survivable and indeed have survivors. And the type of situation most likely to require an evacuation isn't a crash, per se, but a less-than-catastrophic (if still serious) incident like the runway overruns we saw in Chicago and Toronto last year.

That's not to overestimate danger. There are, after all, more than 20,000 commercial departures every day in the United States alone, and the number that face emergency evacuations (or worse) is obviously very tiny. But it does happen.

The preflight safety drills and exit-row briefing cards are generally useless, so weighted down with excess verbiage and legal-speak that you can barely understand the instructions -- not that anybody pays attention to begin with. But you owe it to yourself to discern 1) where the exits are located and 2) the basics of how to operate them. (And as we learned last month, doors cannot be opened during flight.)

Q: My family and I were invited to a wedding in Moscow. The only nonstop is on Aeroflot. I have always harbored a prejudice that flying Aeroflot was risky. Would you fly Aeroflot? And what of its ancient planes?

Aeroflot is a carrier whose reputation unfortunately and unfairly precedes it, stemming mostly from leftover Cold War misconceptions about its safety standards. Once upon a time, measured in raw crash totals, Aeroflot had a comparatively awful safety record. At least on the face of it. Several asterisks were required, not the least of which was that Aeroflot, in its heydays, was a truly gigantic entity -- roughly the size of all U.S. airlines put together -- and it engaged in all manner of far-flung operations to some pretty distant outposts (for instance, rural Siberia, Antarctica). I personally survived two rides on Aeroflot -- between Moscow, Leningrad and Helsinki -- in 1986.

During the 1990s it splintered into dozens of independent carriers, one of which -- still the largest, but nowhere near the heft of the original -- inherited the Aeroflot name and identity. Based in Moscow, the Aeroflot that exists today operates about 90 aircraft and transports around 7 million passengers annually. It has not had a serious accident in more than a decade.

As for those allegedly ancient planes, Aeroflot's fleet is younger than Northwest's, and is comparable in age with that of many other reputable airlines. With their Gothic, distinctly Cold War lines, mainstay Soviet models like the Tupolev Tu-154 (check out this gorgeous shot) might look old, and indeed they are economically obsolete designs, but the Tu-154 remained in production until 1996. Ilyushin was building the four-engine IL-62 and IL-86 until 1994. The average Aeroflot Tupolev is of similar vintage to that of most McDonnell Douglas MD-80s flown by American or Delta. Late-model Boeings and Airbuses, including the 777 and A320, have also joined the Aeroflot fleet.

Q: Your frustrations over myths about airline safety notwithstanding, what do you make of the newly released European Union airline blacklist?

Last summer, after a spate of unusual crashes (several of them covered by this column in detail), the E.U. began compiling its long and controversial airline blacklist, published in March. The list, scheduled for review every three months, bans more than 90 airlines outright and restricts the operations of three others.

One problem with the blacklist brings us back to a point I've made various times in the past -- the great folly of comparing airline safety records: When the difference between a "safe" airline and an "unsafe" one is determined by a small handful of incidents spread over thousands, or even millions, of departures, the distinctions aren't particularly meaningful. Virtually no carriers are outright hazards.

In any case, the majority of the banned operators are small cargo outfits, most of them based in West and Central Africa, that wouldn't be carrying passengers into Europe anyway (including 50 from Democratic Republic of the Congo alone, although my own data, from Airline Fleets International, puts the total number of airlines in that country at around 30, none of which were offering scheduled service to any E.U. destination). To give you some idea, the highest-profile names on the blacklist belong to North Korea's mysterious Air Koryo and Afghanistan's Ariana. The latter is a company with a storied history going back more than 50 years, but for obvious reasons lacks the resources to meet European standards.


Re: Sept. 11 conspiracy theories

I did battle for many years on aviation newsgroups with various TWA 800 conspiracy-mongers. Every knowledgeable poster was accused of being a shill, but what was even funnier was the competition among the various kooks to the point of where they also accused each other of being shills, whose aim was to be so ridiculous that people would ignore the "real" conspiracy theories. The FBI helped fuel the theories with its maddeningly inexplicable refusal to release certain evidence. But then, the TWA 800 investigation was a crime investigation laid over the top of a hampered NTSB investigation. The FBI handles criminal cases its own way. (The 9/11 investigations also are of a criminal nature.) TWA 800 continues to be its own little cottage industry, with suits and Freedom of Information Act requests. The Internet is wonderful, but it is a two-edged sword. Years ago, I pointed out that it used to be that every village had its idiot, but all he could do was sit in the village square and mutter to himself. With the Internet, all the village idiots now can converse, compare notes and build on each other's mutterings, making them ... global village idiots.

John Mazor, a 27-year communications veteran in the airline industry

The line "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" originated not with Carl Sagan but with the late Marcello Truzzi, a sociology professor and founding member of "skeptics" organization CSICOP. Truzzi himself backed away from the line after he realized it was being used by people to dismiss just about all the evidence for extraordinary claims. It's an important, if minor, sociological point with regard to 9/11 theorists. Two things must be defined: How extraordinary is the proof, and just how extraordinary are the claims? Neither question is easily answered, unfortunately.

-- Jonathan

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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.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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