Ask the pilot

Is JetBlue using passengers as guinea pigs? Plus: How zip-lock bags keep America safe.

Published October 27, 2006 11:16AM (EDT)

Security at the odd little airport in Kiev, Ukraine, is quick and straightforward, albeit with a mild American flavor if you happen to be bound for the United States. If so, you'll be asked to remove your footwear, and your carry-ons will be inspected for liquids. The guards seem almost apologetic, and have arranged a series of chairs and small throw rugs where fliers can gather up their bags and relace their shoes. A nice touch, I thought.

Half a day later, in the dingy bowels of Terminal 3 at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, passengers clear customs and race to catch connecting flights upstairs. Unfortunately, Transportation Security Administration rules require that all those arriving from overseas pass through a secondary security screening prior to boarding a domestic connection. Although we were carefully checked out in Kiev, we must now endure another shoe removal and bag scan. Somebody help me with this: We require foreign countries to implement the same tedious and wasteful preflight checks we've adopted at home. Yet, after your plane has landed in the United States, suddenly the checks weren't good enough, and everybody is marched through a metal detector all over again.

Apparently, we are worried more about those departing for Pittsburgh, Houston, Indianapolis or Salt Lake City than about those arriving from Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait or Pakistan. In the convoluted circuitry of Homeland Security logic, passengers coming from abroad are not adequately screened but are allowed onto U.S.-bound flights regardless. The only restriction is, they cannot proceed onward without a follow-up shakedown, presumably to make sure those foreign screeners didn't miss any deadly stashes of shaving cream.

"Laptops out of your bags!" screams a TSA minion as 150 tired fliers are funneled into a tiny, kitty-cornered screening station. The room is cramped, loud, chaotic and filthy. No throw rugs here, just a few busted chairs set next to an overflowing trash barrel. Squeezed into this undersized corridor amid a mass of anxious travelers, half of whom are on the verge of missing their onward flights, I must now do the following as quickly as possible:

1) Remove my backpack
2) Remove my jacket
3) Remove my shoes
4) Remove my laptop from the backpack, and from its case
5) Remove my approved, 1-quart-size zip-lock bag containing its legal allotment of 3-ounce containers of liquids and gels from the backpack

Item 4 must be placed in separate tray, alone. Item 5 goes in a round plastic dish, also by itself. Items 1, 2 and 3 are piled together in a third tray. But not so fast, as a guard warns me not bury my shoes beneath the other items. He recommends I place them separately on the belt, or in yet another tray. So there I am, one person, with four separate trays of belongings. And after those belongings are X-rayed, it's time to:

1) Put my coat back on
2) Put my shoes back on
3) Repack the computer
4) Repack the approved, 1-quart-size zip-lock bag
5) Strap on my backpack

All of this with no chair or table, elbow to elbow with a dozen other people all doing the same thing. I'm trying to grab my stuff as more and more bins come clattering down the rollers. I can't find my shoes, and I have no idea where my passport is. The scene is so chaotic it's making my head spin. Then it gets worse:

"Whose bag is this?" yelps a woman in a red TSA vest.

Naturally it's mine, and naturally she has to scan it again, because "there's something in there." That something turns out to be a 2.5-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer. In a rush, I'd packed it separately from my other lethal fluids and forgotten about it.

Five minutes later, after the bag finally completes its second trip down the belt, the woman unzips it, digs down inside and emerges with the sanitizer. She holds it up for inspection, making a tsk-tsk noise. "You can't have this."

"Why not? It's fewer than 3 ounces."

"It's not in a zip-lock bag."

"That's because my zip-lock bag is over here, with these other things inside."

"Well, it has to be in a zip-lock bag."

"But it's right there in your hand! You can see what it is."

"I told you, it has to be in a zip-lock bag."

"You realize I just stepped off a 10-hour flight, and that bottle was with me the whole time?"

No reply, just a stare.

There's a pause now while I attempt to make sure that I'm not dreaming. There are those times in life when you simply can't believe you're having the conversation you appear to be having, and this is one of them.

"So," I say to the woman. "You mean to tell me that if I take that bottle, and put it into this bag with the other tubes and bottles, everything is OK. But if it stays by itself, you have to confiscate it?"

"I told you, it has to be in a zip-lock bag."

And into the zip-lock bag it went, and off I staggered to catch my connecting flight, which by now had departed.

There you have it: Tiny containers of hand sanitizer in zip-lock bags are harmless and approved. Those not in zip-lock bags are dangerous contraband. Meanwhile, the TSA still cannot justify its methods of confiscation: If certain liquids and gels are taken from a passenger, the assumption has to be that those materials are potentially hazardous. If so, why are they tossed unceremoniously into the trash? At every checkpoint you'll see a bin or barrel brimming with illegal containers. They are not quarantined or handed over to the bomb squad; they are thrown away. In effect, the agency readily admits that it knows these things are harmless. But it's going to steal them anyway, and either you like it or you don't fly.

I know, I know, we've been through this before. It's fish in a barrel. And here I am calling off my self-imposed moratorium on security discussions after hammering this topic for most of last summer. But the madness has become patently abject, and people need to realize they are subsidizing it. More than 2 million Americans experience the carnival of airport security every day. An apparatus that big takes a lot of dough to keep it running. First, our taxes pay for the salaries of thousands of airport screeners, and for all the many overpriced accouterments demanded of a bureaucracy. Then come the trickle-down costs of delays, missed flights and broken appointments, along with the intangibles of widespread tension and anxiety. Last but not least, every dollar fed to the TSA furnace in a bid to keep shampoo off airplanes is a dollar that could have been spent more effectively elsewhere in the security chain. The bill for that one comes later, possibly in the guise of catastrophe.

Not that Americans hold a monopoly on bad ideas. Starting Nov. 6, all airports in the European Union will implement a liquids and gels program almost identical to ours. The size restriction will be 100 milliliters, and containers will need to be in placed in plastic bags. "A new threat to aviation security has emerged: liquid explosives," reads a briefing bulletin from the Association of European Airlines and Airports Council International.

This is bad news for Europeans, and even as that bulletin plays fast and loose with the truth -- this "new" threat has been known about for more than a decade -- why do I have a feeling E.U. authorities will not bungle and botch things as badly as we have? Of everything there is to criticize about airport security in America, it's not the regulations themselves that bother me most but the manner in which they're applied. Five years after Sept. 11, the average checkpoint in this country remains a jerry-rigged jumble of rickety tables, clattering plastic buckets and guards barking orders to swarms of confused fliers. And the idea that a trained representative of the TSA, whose job it is, allegedly, to protect fliers from criminals and terrorists, would haggle over the absence of a plastic bag tells you all there is to know.

End of rant. That moratorium on all things security is hereby reinstated. If you're tired of reading about it, I'm tired of writing about it.

Speaking of tiredness, we turn to something completely different -- a scandal of sorts involving JetBlue, one of the country's most popular upstart carriers. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal broke a story purporting that in 2005, the New York-based airline had conducted an unusual series of experiments on pilot fatigue, without the knowledge of paying passengers.

"Without seeking approval from Federal Aviation Administration headquarters," says the Journal, "consultants for JetBlue outfitted a small number of pilots with devices to measure alertness. Operating on a green light from lower-level FAA officials, management assigned the crews to work longer shifts in the cockpit -- as many as 10 to 11 hours a day -- than the eight hours the government allows. Their hope: Showing that pilots could safely fly far longer without exhibiting ill effects from fatigue." Customers on these flights were not aware of the tests.

The Journal exposé quickly exploded through the blogosphere and was picked up by media around the world, sparking outrage over the idea of passengers being used as guinea pigs by an airline looking to cut costs.

"Passengers would be shocked that this was going on," remarked the always incendiary David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. "When travelers buy tickets on commercial flights, they don't expect to be test pilots themselves."

That's an effective sound bite, but in truth this story is sorely overblown, and it completely misses the point with respect to crew fatigue. Fatigue is a legitimate and troubling issue, and has been for years, and the newspaper is correct in pointing out the FAA's existing eight-hour maximum on cockpit time. (Long-haul flights beyond eight hours' duration carry one or more relief pilots.) But cockpit time isn't the problem. The problem is mostly one of "duty time" -- for pilots that includes not only those hours at the controls but hours spent waiting out delays and long breaks between scheduled departures -- and its corollary, layover time. In these areas, bargaining agreements and/or company rules typically go above and beyond what the government requires, though still there are loopholes.

On a given workday, a pilot might log only two hours on the flight deck. I doubt that would raise the ire of bloggers or garner a snort from Stempler. Except, those two hours might come at either end of a 15-hour duty stretch that began at 5 a.m., most of which was spent waiting out weather delays or killing time in the terminal. Or a pilot might have packed eight full hours of flying -- with five, six or even seven legs -- into that same span. Twelve-, 14-, even 16-hour shifts are possible, containing anywhere from zero to eight-plus hours aloft.

The ultimate horror is something called a "continuous duty" or "stand-up" layover. A crew signs on at, say, 9 p.m. and flies a short leg, arriving at 11 p.m. The next leg isn't scheduled until 7 o'clock in the morning. The crew "stands up" until then, technically on duty the entire time, either trying to catch a nap at the motel or slouching around the airport crew room.

Notice I say "motel" and not the Marriott or Hyatt, as this is chiefly a scourge of commuter and regional carriers. Crews at larger airlines tend to have it considerably better, but they too are hardly immune from duty-related stress and exhaustion. Short layovers sandwiched between long days of flying are not uncommon.

Those layover sandwiches are called "rest periods" in industry and FAA parlance. If a crew goes off duty in Chicago at 9 p.m. and signs on again at 6 a.m., that's a nine-hour rest period. Legal minimum rest can be as short as eight hours. That doesn't sound terribly abusive, until you start subtracting the time spent doing post-flight paperwork, standing on the curb in freezing rain waiting for the hotel van, driving to and from the airport, scrounging for food and so on. Eight hours is now five. As I've recommended in this space before, the most productive step regulators could take is eliminating transit time from what it considers "rest." In fairness to a pilot and his passengers, that rest clock should not begin to tick until the minute he latches the door of his hotel room, and should stop ticking no later than the minute he checks out.

That will never happen. Because it introduces ambiguity into how long a given layover might actually last, airlines can't work with it. And whether in spite of or because of this, the FAA has spent the past two decades procrastinating, legislating minor changes while commissioning study after study.

It's somewhat amusing, and frustrating, to hear so much howling over JetBlue's on-the-job research trials. I'd have no problem with a crew at the controls for 10 or 11 hours, so long as the pilots were adequately rested and the duty period reasonable. (If at some point the FAA considers slackening the eight-hour cockpit rule, it will need to reduce duty limits concurrently.) But although JetBlue doesn't seem to be guilty of endangering the public, it is more clearly guilty, based on what the Journal tells us, of underhandedness. It's easy to understand why the airline wasn't eager to disclose the program to passengers. The nuances of duty time, flight time, etc., would have been lost in translation, leaving people to envision droopy-eyed, half-awake pilots at the helm.

But precisely for that reason, it was a terrible move not to secure more explicit consent. JetBlue ought to have made sure the FAA knew exactly what it was doing, top to bottom, and figured out a way to package the tests palatably to customers. An on-board brochure, perhaps, might have done the trick, emphasizing that a third pilot was on hand at all times -- as indeed was the case. Secrecy and silence were a recipe for scandal, fomenting yet more negative sentiment among a public that already dislikes and distrusts airlines.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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