Ask the pilot

Why do two U.S. airlines fly to Uruguay, but none to Poland? And what does Iceland have that New Zealand doesn't? Inside the mysteries of who flies where.

Published July 7, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

What do the following nations have in common? Czech Republic, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Malaysia, Austria, Poland, Finland, Uzbekistan, Pakistan. That was the riddle posed here last Friday, and solved, I'm proud to report, in short order by several readers. First to figure it out, scoring an autographed copy of the world's most invisible book, was Mike Vanne, of Boston (since he's local, and to save on postage, I made Vanne come to the house and pick up his prize). The two-part answer goes like this:

1. Each of the listed nations is home to an airline that provides regular scheduled service to the United States (mostly to New York-Kennedy). Left to right, that'd be CSA, Royal Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, Royal Air Maroc, Emirates, EgyptAir, Malaysia Airlines, Austrian, LOT, Finnair, Uzbekistan Airways and PIA.

2. No U.S. airlines operate to any of these countries. Take the Czech Republic. The Czech national airline, CSA, has flown between Prague and New York for several years. Yet none of our own airlines -- neither United nor Delta nor American nor anybody else -- returns the favor.

And the list is by no means complete. You can add New Zealand, for one, ever since United pulled out of Auckland. Ethiopia is another. Ethiopian Airlines, one of Africa's oldest and most reliable carriers, serves Washington-Dulles, providing the only direct link (it's a one-stop) between North America and East Africa. Bangladesh too. Biman Bangladesh Airlines has flown to JFK for many years.

I don't bring this up as a criticism, necessarily. Notwithstanding my prior lamentations on the lack of a global presence among America's airlines, I think the situation is interesting more than anything else. That a given route makes sense from a foreign carrier's standpoint does not mean that it makes sense from ours. As I touched on last week, the criteria of route planning are highly complex, taking in any or all of the following: market demographics, scheduling issues, overflight charges and airport handling fees, local staff wages, fuel costs, security issues. Not to mention that some routes are tightly regulated. The chief reason we've seen a recent explosion of routes between the United States and India is an "open skies" agreement signed by the two nations in 2004.

Moreover, certain markets simply won't support multi-carrier competition, especially when a state-controlled airline is involved. Does Uzbekistan Airways make a legitimate profit flying twice a week between Tashkent and New York? Who knows, but I highly doubt that a reciprocal service would be viable. New Zealand, meanwhile, is a destination beloved of many Americans, but it's a very small country (population 4 million) and it's extremely far away. (Los Angeles to Auckland clocks in at 5,652 nautical miles, or nearly twice the mileage from New York to London.) Does a market this limited and logistically challenging justify a daily 747 going head-to-head with Air New Zealand? Apparently not. Iceland presents a similar example. Icelandair flies to several U.S. destinations. Relatively few Americans travel to Iceland, and the same holds for Icelanders (there are fewer than 300,000 of them) coming here, but the airline has cultivated a successful flow-through market at Reykjavik, where passengers connect to and from cities in Western Europe. (Icelandair carries about 1.7 million people annually. That's six times the population of its home country!)

Furthermore, we're under no obligation to operate in a given country just because we can or because we need to make some vague patriotic statement. In the heyday of the Soviet Union, Aeroflot's far-flung network, the most expansive on earth, was a political organ as much as anything, with empty Tupolevs and Illyushins shuttling to places like Nicaragua and Burundi (discounting what nefarious hardware may have lurked in the cargo holds).

That being said, a few examples are head-scratchers. One that jumps out is Poland. You mean to tell me that Uruguay, 10 hours away, with a population of under 4 million, is able to support two U.S. airlines -- American and United -- but that Poland, despite being closer and far more populous, and despite there being 10 million Americans of Polish descent, is served by none? True story, though it depends on your definition of "serve." Enter the magic of code-share arrangements. Service by proxy, our airlines seem to think, is often the best option. Dial up United Airlines or tap into its Web site, and it will be happy to sell you a ticket from New York or Chicago to Warsaw. Or to New Zealand, for that matter. Only in the fine print do you discover you'll actually be riding aboard Star Alliance partners LOT and Air New Zealand. (For Americans fed up with crappy service aboard our largest carriers, that's not necessarily a bad thing.)

Taking things a step further, Uzbekistan Airways' twice-weekly 767s from New York-Kennedy to Tashkent now stop in Riga, Latvia. Thus, not only does an Uzbek airline serve the United States, and not vice versa, but Latvia is connected as well (and not vice versa), via a third party. In the parlance of air transport, this is called a "fifth freedom" privilege.

For some real excitement, let's turn the whole thing around. Case in point, Belize. Three U.S. majors -- Delta, American and Continental -- feature scheduled flights to Belize City. No government restrictions prohibit Belizean airlines from reciprocating, yet none do. That would seem to get us off the hook -- except little Belize (one of the author's favorite destinations, by the way, especially the western interior) doesn't have a national airline. The five registered carriers in that country fly only local air-taxi routes using small propeller planes.

Venezuela is another curious case -- and an illustration of how politics can influence the routes game. For 10 years the Federal Aviation Administration refused to grant Category 1 safety status to Venezuela, greatly hampering the ability of any Venezuelan airline to serve the United States. Last winter the Venezuelan government responded by threatening to ban all Continental and Delta flights into Caracas, and substantially limiting those of American, for what it insisted was unfair treatment. The voice of President Hugo Chavez, whose opposition to the Bush administration's foreign policy is duly noted, was implicit in the threat. In April, less than a week before Venezuela's deadline, the FAA upgraded the country's ranking to Category 1. Was the FAA bowing to pressure from Delta and Continental, or did Venezuela have a point?

The FAA's International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program awards either Category 1 or Category 2 status. What makes IASA controversial, and different from the European Union's more straightforward airline blacklist (which has its own problems), is that rankings are assigned to nations themselves, and not to specific carriers. Countries stuck in Category 2 may still fly to the United States, but they face a host of restrictions and severe limitations on expansion of service. Victims of Category 2 have included El Salvador-based TACA and the now defunct Air Afrique. TACA has not posted a single passenger fatality in more than 35 years, while Air Afrique, as we saw a week ago, hadn't suffered a crash since 1963. With respect to Venezuela, our own carriers faced no FAA restrictions in operating to or from this allegedly substandard nation.

For one of the few pure instances of a non-reciprocating country served by an American airline, we go to Southeast Asia. In December 2004, United Airlines launched flights between Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong (connecting onward to the United States), marking the return of U.S. air service to Vietnam after an absence lasting 29 years. Fast-growing Vietnam Airlines, whose already ultramodern fleet has now been enhanced by a fresh order of Boeing 787s, has had its eyes on Los Angeles and San Francisco for some time, but has yet to inaugurate service.

Lastly are the many dozens of countries that remain unconnected to the United States at all. Some, like Cuba, are the fallout of senseless politics. Others go unserved out of simple economic good sense. Something tells me that flights to Mauritania, or Chad, regardless of the airline, would be woefully underbooked.

Stop me if you find this tedious, but riffs like these are among my favorite, helping to showcase those blurry zones where geography, culture and aviation all gloriously merge. For some of us, this is what flying -- and writing about flying -- is all about. What's the most indispensable research tool in putting together an Ask the Pilot column? My 12-inch-diameter desktop globe.

Anyway, speaking of geography and tedium, I managed to solicit surprisingly little wrath from soccer fans after my snippy comment about the World Cup. If anything, I received emotional support from a number of fellow sufferers.

"I've always been convinced that soccer hooliganism is a function of short-term memory loss," writes Wayne Bernhardson. "After yet another scoreless tie, fans realize they've been fooled again and go berserk." Nobody could accuse Bernhardson of American parochialism -- he's the author of several Moon Travel Handbooks, including the one I took to Chile two winters ago.

For me, the moment of truth came when I took in a Morocco vs. Saudi Arabia match at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Final score, 1-0. Or maybe it was 1-1. Or 0-0. Or 2-1. Or who cares? Honestly, I've tried deciphering soccer's strange appeal, but best I can tell, it contains none of the nuanced strategies and moments of tension found in other sports, and especially in baseball. The back and forth monotony is stultifying. It's like hockey, which is bad enough, in slow motion.

The inanity of those tie-breaker penalty shootouts has been expounded on far and wide, but they are so infuriatingly stupid that I can't let it rest. Here, the whole strategic paradigm of soccer -- or what exists of one -- goes cuckoo. For all of regulation time, it's virtually impossible to score; suddenly, with penalty shots, it becomes almost automatic. Players spend a whole game wearing themselves out, fighting to the teeth for a nil-nil "tie," only to have the contest decided by what is essentially a coin flip? Billions watch this. Why can teams not play sudden-death overtime, as they do in American football, for as long as necessary, allowing the best -- or at least the best-conditioned -- team to win?

The other day, here in Boston, folks were driving around like mad, honking their horns and waving flags. Portugal, the red-and-green banners explained, had won a match. The ongoing street party was similar to what happened in 1994 after a Brazilian win. Only later did I learn that Portugal's game had ended in a tie and that the Portuguese had emerged victorious by virtue of, yes, shootout kicks.

The Portuguese national airline, TAP, no longer flies to Boston. We also lack nonstops to Brazil. My airline start-up dreams shall now focus on those two nations, with deeply discounted tickets to the old country at summer World Cup time.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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