Ask the pilot

Banished breast-feeders, impertinent imams, and big new changes for Boston and Bangkok.


Patrick Smith
December 1, 2006 5:00PM (UTC)

This column does get mired in an air pocket of negativity, doesn't it? A scan of the archives since summer reveals a distinct pattern of casualty and complaint: midair collisions, death by skyscraper, endless airport security gripes You wouldn't know it by reading my latest installments, but not everything happening in the world of air travel is so unfortunate and distressing. Some recent news is downright good.

First stop Bangkok, where earlier this fall -- at 3:12 on the morning of Sept. 28, to be exact -- the dumpy Don Muang Airport finally closed its runways to regular commercial traffic. Moments after Qantas Flight 302 lifted off for Sydney, Australia, the lights were switched off. Almost simultaneously, across town, the lights came on at the sparkling new Suvarnabhumi Airport, the latest in a string of Asian megaterminals. The first passenger arrival was an Aerosvit 767 from Kiev, Ukraine. The opening comes about a year behind schedule.

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Opened in 1914, Don Muang was one of the oldest big-city airports in the world, and was showing it. Dirty and overcrowded, it had become the fourth busiest airport in Asia, handling just under 39 million passengers in 2005. Many of Don Muang's long-haul flights arrived and departed in the wee hours, and it often seemed that at least half of those 39 million people could be found on any given night sleeping on the greasy concourse floors. Nowhere was a replacement more urgently needed.

Airports are a point of civic pride in the Far East. As evident in places like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul (Incheon), Osaka and Hong Kong, their grandiosity is taken seriously. Suvarnabhumi does not disappoint. The main terminal is the second-largest in existence, just behind Hong Kong's. Branching into seven concourses, the passenger complex covers more than half a million square meters. HKG might be marginally bigger, but it lacks Suvarnabhumi's flair. Visitors speak glowingly of the futuristic, glass-and-steel superstructure, the soaring archways and the wide, sunny atria greened with tropical trees. "Magnificent" is the word that keeps coming up. Inside, one finds all the amenities expected of an ultra-modern aerodrome: garden courtyards, a 1:4 Starbucks-to-passengers ratio, state-of-the-art automatic toilets, and, airports being airports, approximately 950 miles of duty-free shopping.

A separate budget airline terminal is slated for construction, to be used exclusively by low-cost airlines. For now, as in most newer airports around the globe, check-in for all carriers is consolidated in a central departure hall -- a foreign concept, as it were, to many Americans familiar with the piecemeal assemblage of buildings that make up the typical U.S. airport.

Bangkok is the region's most important tourist hub, and Suvarnabhumi will process up to 45 million passengers and 3 million tons of air freight each year. It has the tallest control tower on earth, and two enormous runways. (At 12,000 and 13,000 feet, the length is appreciated by the airline number crunchers. For some long-haul departures, Bangkok's performance-robbing heat and humidity might otherwise entail weight penalties.) It retains the well-known BKK code, and is served by more than 80 carriers, including Northwest and United. National flag carrier Thai Airways is headquartered there.

The name Suvarnabhumi (it's "su-wan-na-poom," with a silent "i"), refers to an ancient, possibly mythical Southeast Asian kingdom. I'm not sure that I like the idea of naming airports after imaginary places, especially ones you can't pronounce phonetically, but at least it has character. A more flavorful choice than "Bangkok International." I'm uncertain who or what the name Don Muang refers to. In my mind, it always had the unfortunate effect of conjuring up the image of a smiling Thai cowboy.

Suvarnabhumi had some teething problems in the first few days -- an uncooperative luggage system, inadequate signage, etc., -- but these have mostly been remedied. Forgive me, but if there's anything handicapping the airport in a permanent sense, maybe it's the metropolis of Bangkok itself, 25 kilometers to the west. A steam-cooked cauldron of noise and traffic jams, the Thai capital ranks as one of the author's least favorite cities.

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From the American point of view, it's annoying that all the best airports are so far away. We've been blessed with some exciting new terminals in the past several years -- at DCA, SFO, DTW and elsewhere -- but there hasn't been a truly massive project, the kind that gets its own "NOVA" documentary or Discovery Channel show, since Denver. There are plenty of valid reasons for this, but still it's no fun.

At least one smaller project, however, completed only a week ago, should not go uncelebrated, particularly by those of us in the northeastern United States: On Thanksgiving morning, Boston's Logan International Airport inaugurated a brand-new runway. For some of us, it was a day we thought we'd never see.

Numbered 14/32 in honor of its magnetic orientation, the runway sits at Logan's southwest perimeter near the area known as Bird Island Flats. Its construction was a subject of contentious debate and protest for three decades, drawing vociferous opposition from two generations of community activists and politicians. To them, 14/32 is little more than an expansion ploy devised by the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), destined to draw in ever more flights, more noise, and more pollution.

But for the hundreds of thousands of passengers forced to sit in taxiway queues and holding patterns each year, the runway is a welcome relief valve for Logan's notorious gridlock. Until now, during certain weather and wind conditions, especially in winter, only one runway could be used at a time, greatly reducing the allowable number of takeoffs and landings per hour. At airports across the nation, as doubtless many of you have experienced firsthand, Boston-bound aircraft have been subject to "ground stop" delays before ever leaving the gate.

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At 5,000 feet the strip is short, engineered chiefly for the regional jets and turboprops that account for nearly half of Logan's traffic. Sequestering these planes into separate patterns will free up airspace -- and ground space -- for larger ones. Fewer holding patterns and taxiway jams will save fuel and reduce pollution, while the smaller craft themselves generate little noise or emissions. And easing congestion also makes the airport safer.

Runway 14/32 is arguably the best thing to happen at Logan in a lifetime -- more beneficial than the Ted Williams tunnel, the new subway stop, or any of the terminal-side changes. "This is a big step forward for New England travelers," says Virginia Buckingham, a former Massport director. "A triumph of facts over politically engineered fiction."

More airport news from New England: Last Wednesday, about three dozen mothers and their small children staged the first-ever airport "nurse-in" at the Burlington International Airport in Vermont. The gathering was called in support of Emily Gillette, the 27-year-old New Mexico woman thrown off a commuter jet over a breast-feeding incident. Back on Oct. 13, Gillette had been nursing her 22-month-old daughter in the last row of a Freedom Airlines regional jet preparing for departure from Burlington to New York. (The ironically named Freedom, a subsidiary of the Mesa Air Group, provides feeder service for Delta.) Although Gillette's breast was not exposed, a flight attendant requested that she cover the child's head with a blanket. When Gillette refused, she and her family were told to get off.

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According to the airline, which has since disciplined the flight attendant, the captain apologized and encouraged the family to reboard, but they refused. Gillette denies this, and earlier this month she filed a formal complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission. A few days later, her partisans staged the nurse-in, which among other things has forced us to confront a new and highly unfortunate word: "lactivism."

Not to be outdone, Reagan National airport in Washington, D.C., was recently the scene of a protest "pray-in." The event, held on Monday, was organized by Omar Shahin, a Muslim cleric who was one of six men removed from a US Airways flight in Minneapolis on Nov. 20. The six had been attending a conference of the North American Imams Federation, the focus of which happened to be cultural bridge building between Muslims and other Americans. After arousing the suspicions of passengers and crew, they were led away in handcuffs by police. What had they done? Well, they were seen praying, were heard to make critical remarks about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and were otherwise engaged in "suspicious activity" (that highly subjective, vaguely definable behavior that tends to involve things like "moving around" and "standing up"), which is now the standard excuse for passenger vigilantism. Some of the imams had purchased one-way tickets, and at least two of them had no checked luggage. Realistically, the lack of luggage should be comforting -- no luggage, no hidden bombs -- but we're apparently still fixated on the Sept. 11 skyjack model, no matter how impossible it would be for a small group of terrorists to pull off an in-flight takeover in 2006.

Although several Web sites, some more openly anti-Islamic than others, claim that Omar Shahin has ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups (a tenuous allegation once you read the fine print), he and the others were questioned, searched and then cleared by authorities.

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News stories have consistently reported that US Airways refused to accommodate the men on a later flight, forcing them to purchase tickets on a different carrier. This would be a case of obvious discrimination, if not a violation of the laws of common carriage. That is, if it happened.

"What you've been reading is the unfortunate result of miscommunication," says Andrea Rader, a US Airways spokeswoman. "We absolutely did not refuse the men transportation." Rader maintains that company personnel went looking for the imams in Minneapolis after they'd been cleared, but they had already departed for Phoenix on a Northwest flight. "When the men arrived in Phoenix," she says, "US Airways representatives met them at the gate."

What do I think? I think the imams were asking for trouble, frankly, by throwing down their prayer rugs and going full salat at a crowded gate in Minnesota. Major airports have areas -- chapels, mosques and synagogues -- set aside for these things. Not that the imams deserved to be handcuffed, and penance for the squeamish infidels who had them carted away ought to include spending time at the Saudi Arabian or Kuwait Airways gates some night at JFK.

As for the breast-feeding imbroglio, anything that keeps a baby quiet and distracted on an airplane is a good idea and should not, under any circumstances, be discouraged.

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When it comes to booting people from planes, we seem to have the whole thing backward. Instead of rooting out obnoxious cellphone chatterers, shrieking kids and high-volume snorers, we're kicking off moms, people whose T-shirts we don't approve of, and those whose skin tones and religious affiliations don't fit the model of wholesome American flier.

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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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