Ask the pilot

Isn't there something wrong with the fact that entire regions of the world go unserved by U.S. airlines?

Published June 30, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

We should all be excited about Ghana.

No, I'm not making reference to the World Cup, and Ghana's thrilling* 2-1 victory over the United States on June 22. We should all be excited about Ghana because later this year, Delta Air Lines will be flying there. Nonstops between New York-Kennedy and Ghana's capital, Accra, begin on Dec. 11. This, in addition to Delta's previously announced service from Atlanta to Dakar, Senegal, and Johannesburg, South Africa, set to commence a week earlier.

Regulars to this column recognize that I've been fixated on Africa -- specifically, on the fact that no U.S. carriers provide scheduled service anywhere on the continent -- since I began writing for Salon. For newcomers, here's a recap: Except for scattered charters, cargo flights and occasional ad hoc contract runs, none of our airlines have flown to Africa since 2001. That year, Delta pulled the plug on a short-lived route between New York and Cairo, Egypt. Around the same time, TWA's New York-Cairo flight, operated for almost 60 years, also was nixed. Tucked into the northeast corner of the continent, Cairo is culturally and geopolitically more Middle Eastern than African proper. When you really look at it, more than a decade and a half has gone by since a mainline American carrier ventured anywhere below the Sahara. One has to go all the way back to Pan Am, which until the late 1980s was still calling port in cities like Monrovia, Nairobi and Lagos (that's Liberia, Kenya and Nigeria).

Delta's plans are subject to change, as the return-to-Africa party has been rescheduled once already. (Continental postponed a Newark-Lagos nonstop, originally proposed for last spring.) But should things unfold as the airline intends, it'll be an exhilarating, even historic occasion when Flight DL34 lifts off from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport on the afternoon of Dec. 4, bound for the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

If you're into that sort of thing. Not everybody shares my enthusiasm, I realize. When, a few months ago, I excitedly wrote of the Dakar and JoBurg announcement, several puzzled readers wanted to know what all the fuss was about. "Why should we care," asked one e-mail, "which airlines fly to which places?" Commented another, "If I'm going from San Francisco to South Africa, I'll take Delta through Atlanta, or maybe I'll take Lufthansa through Frankfurt. So long as I'm getting a ticket at a good price, I couldn't care less which name is painted on the side, domestic or foreign."

Point taken, but there's another, and dare I say essential, way to look at this. One can view air travel purely on its most base and functionary level -- as a convenient and preferably cheap means of getting from city A to city B. Or you can see it in a more meaningful context (I was going to type "romantic," but that's not giving it due credit), acknowledging the magnificence and potential (both positive and negative) that come with the ability to span thousands of miles, connecting vastly different cultures, in one fell swoop. Whether you love or hate to fly, there's something important going on. If a passenger can step aboard a 767 in New York, and eight hours later step off that 767 in Ghana, without feeling utterly humbled by the opportunity to have done so, then he or she ought to be shoved into the cargo hold and sent right back.

Therein, apart from its use as a high-speed tool of globalization, is the notion of the jetliner as national ambassador. Our country's imperial pretensions notwithstanding, is there not something wrong with the fact that entire regions of the world go unserved by airlines of the United States? For better or worse, we are arguably the most powerful and influential nation on earth, home to seven of the planet's 10 largest airlines, including the entire top five. Yet for longer than 15 years none have flown to Africa? From a patriotic point of view, if not an entirely practical one, there's something, well, shameful about that.

Airlines, of course, have their own aspirations and agendas, which have nothing to do with romance, little to do with politics, and everything to do with trying to make a profit and stay afloat. Africa as a whole accounts for a mere 3 percent of global air traffic. Not believing there was money to be made flying there directly, American carriers have been happy selling tickets via their code-share partners. But minds and markets change, and now Delta -- and perhaps others soon -- is willing to give it a try. Good for the airline, and good for us too.

And it's fitting, if maybe a bit ironic, that Delta, today the world's third-largest airline, should be the one to pick up where Pan Am left off. It was Delta that purchased virtually all of Pan Am's transatlantic network in 1990, and the upcoming flights to Accra will depart from the old Pan Am Worldport at JFK, a building now inhabited by Delta and called, in dishonorable Port Authority parlance, "Terminal 3."

Buried in this discussion is perhaps an obvious question: Why Ghana? As a major city (population 2.5 million) and West African gateway, Dakar makes good sense as a stopover en route to JoBurg, but when it comes to opening a third city, why not Cairo again? Or Lagos? Or Nairobi? Well, the economics of choosing and developing a route are remarkably complicated, taking in everything from market demographics to foreign overflight charges and airport handling fees. Ghana's burgeoning tourist industry is one factor. Lack of competition is another. And Delta sees Accra, like Dakar, as another gateway city, providing relatively easy access to nearby countries. One of those countries is Nigeria. There are over a million Nigerian-Americans -- a sizable percentage of whom reside in New York City -- but flight options to that country are limited. The collapse of Nigeria Airways, and the deferment of Continental's Lagos plans, mean that most Nigeria-bound travelers from the U.S. face roundabout transfers in western Europe. For Delta, operating into friendly and secure Ghana is a hassle-free alternative to Nigeria itself. Historically, airlines flying to Lagos, Nigeria's largest city and transportation hub, have encountered serious bureaucratic snafus and security issues.

Even with Americans getting back into the mix, options to Africa aren't as plentiful, or as colorful, as they used to be. Nigeria Airways and Ghana Airways, both longtime regulars at JFK, have been liquidated (the latter's stylish, old-fashioned livery was one of my favorites). But most conspicuously absent is the legendary Air Afrique. With an expansive network spanning three continents, Air Afrique was a transnational collective representing several West African nations. "Legendary" can be stressed facetiously, but for all its faults the carrier was a safe and semi-dependable option between New York and West Africa for many years.

There was something exotic, and maybe a little decadent, about Air Afrique. (If you're a movie buff, an Air Afrique ticket booklet and route map make a cameo appearance in the hands of a young Jack Nicholson in "The Passenger.") I remember one afternoon at JFK about 10 years ago, when I was captain of a TWA Express turboprop. Taxiing out for departure, we'd been instructed to follow an Air Afrique flight to runway 13R. Approaching the runway threshold, as the green and white jet turned into position ahead of us, I remember how much I wished I was sitting in the back of that overbooked Airbus, headed for the Ivory Coast, instead of sitting at the controls of a 30-passenger Jetstream headed to Baltimore. To a lot of pilots that'll seem treasonous, and possibly insane, but on a list of carriers I yearned to hitch a ride on, and places I yearned to see, Air Afrique and West Africa were at the top. Alas, the airline dissolved in 2001. (Eventually I made it to West Africa, colonial style, ensconced in the blasphemously comfortable confines of Air France.)

Africa -- the western parts in particular -- isn't exactly synonymous with air safety. If one country deserves to be maligned as a genuine, inexcusable offender, it's Nigeria, where various upstart airlines have accounted for 10 serious crashes in the past 10 years. But in four decades of operation, Air Afrique's only fatal accident was the crash of a propeller-driven DC-6 in 1963. Ghana Airways' history was even cleaner, marred by a single fatality, in 1969. In fact, most of the continent's national flag carriers, from South African Airways to Ethiopian Airlines, possess respectable if not exemplary records. Tunisair and Air Zimbabwe have gone crash-free for over 25 years. Africa's poor reputation is owed primarily to second- and third-tier companies, including the numerous and shady cargo outfits found throughout the region. When the European Union released its controversial blacklist last March, the bulk of better than 90 banned airlines were based in Africa. A majority of these, however, were small freight carriers.

In another impressive return, United Airlines has announced service between Washington-Dulles and Kuwait, on tap for this fall. That's an interesting one because United will thus become the only U.S. airline with a scheduled route to an Arab country. (Aside from those surrendered Cairo flights, TWA ceased flying into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, around the time of its absorption into American Airlines six years ago.)

Delta, by the way, as part of a master plan to increase international revenues beyond 30 percent, is also jumping in with a nonstop between JFK and Mumbai, India. At 6,777 nautical miles, this will be one of the longest flights in existence -- seventh longest, to be exact -- and some tough competition for Continental and American, currently providing Newark-Delhi and Chicago-Delhi nonstops, respectively. (Air India has yet to launch similar flights, but I wouldn't bet against one in the not too distant future.) This spring, Delta inaugurated flights to Ukraine and Hungary -- destinations served by no other American carrier. (Other Delta exclusives include Istanbul, Turkey, and Moscow.)

I don't care what the business pages are saying, the airlines of America are stepping forward. If not toward profitability (yet), then at least toward a global presence not seen in upward of 20 years. Having been body-slammed to the mat by low-cost rivals on the home front, the bruised and bloodied majors are sniffing out opportunities abroad. Their motives are coldly practical, but the result is something richer.

And on that note, we'll close with a contest. Solve the following riddle, and win an autographed copy of "Ask the Pilot." What do the following nations (a partial list, in no specific order) have in common? Czech Republic, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Malaysia, Austria, Poland, Finland, Uzbekistan, Pakistan. Keep your thinking in line with the preceding discussion, and bear in mind there is a two-part answer, to be revealed next week.

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*Soccer addendum: Sorry, did I say Ghana's World Cup victory was "thrilling"? Sure, if by thrilling you mean unpardonably tedious. Get those hateful e-mails revved up, because truth be told, and curious as it might seem coming from a proud internationalist, I find your futbol excruciating. For this erstwhile pilot, another game is all that matters.

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Re: Airline advertisements

"I have to disagree about the ads currently being run by our carriers. United's advertising and branding have always been exceptional. From the Gershwin music to the cover images of Hemispheres, United sells a dream of sophistication and style. (Granted, that's not always the reality found onboard.)

-- Caroline [last name withheld on request], Los Angeles

Author's reply: I'm just resentful, perhaps, because back in the 1990s United twice turned me down for a job. I agree that Hemispheres is one of the best-written in-flight publications around, an opinion I proudly and strategically shared during one of those interviews, thinking it might score a few points. In retrospect, that probably sealed my fate, leaving the H.R. people to wonder what kind of freaky pilot gives a damn about the smartness of seat-pocket reading material.

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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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