Ask the pilot

The year's most notable air travel stories (who can forget the overblown liquid-bomb terror scare). Plus: A second look at the midair collision in Brazil.

Published December 22, 2006 12:03PM (EST)

It's that time of year again: carolers a-caroling, chestnuts roasting, long security lines, the savory aroma of Chick-fil-A wafting through the concourse ... Doubtless you're hoping for an appropriately themed column on this weekend before Christmas -- something about the difficulties of winter flying, perhaps, or maybe a story on the Official Airline of Santa Claus.

But before moving on to the fun stuff, we need to revisit last week's column and its discussion of September's midair collision in Brazil. The article brought in a flurry of responses, a number of which, in expressing their displeasure with my analysis, seemed not to understand the basic circumstances of the accident, leading me to believe my explanations were less than clear.

If you're totally new to the topic, I'd recommend starting here. For those of you already familiar, here's a new and hopefully cogent rundown of what went wrong:

On Sept. 29, a Gol Transportes Aéreos 737 collided head-on with a U.S.-registered executive jet, an Embraer Legacy, at 37,000 feet over the Amazon jungle. The Legacy landed safely; the 737 did not. Brazilian authorities say the Legacy wasn't supposed to be at 37,000 feet. The evidence says otherwise.

In the minutes before the accident, air traffic control had lost radio (voice) communication and radar contact with the Legacy crew. Actually, radar contact had become intermittent, though controllers could no longer see the airplane's speed or height on radar, or talk to its crew. Last they knew, the Legacy was cruising at 37,000 feet, 460 nautical miles northwest of Brasília.

Temporary, short-term loss of radio and/or radar contact between pilots and air traffic control is not unusual. What precipitated disaster was not an inability to communicate, per se, but ATC's apparent assumptions about what the plane would do next, coupled with a failure to adequately monitor two converging targets.

In the event of communications loss, Federal Aviation Administration (in the U.S.) and International Civil Aviation Organization (globally) regulations mandate that pilots fly at the higher of the following two altitudes (there's a third option as well, but it does not apply in this context):

1. The altitude assigned in the last clearance received from ATC
2. The altitude ATC has advised to expect in a later clearance (clearances are sometimes issued in stages)

In both cases the correct altitude was 37,000 feet. Exactly where the Legacy was.

Prior to departing from San Jose dos Campos, a large city near São Paulo, transcripts show, the Legacy received an ATC clearance all the way to its destination (Manaus, in northern Brazil) at 37,000 feet. "Clear, 370, Manaus" were the instructions. Any pilots acknowledging this clearance would be justified in maintaining 37,000 feet all the way until their arrival, unless and until instructed otherwise.

For good measure, transcripts also record the pilots' checking in with en route controllers at 37,000 feet, and receiving no requests to climb or descend.

Brazilian authorities have repeatedly asserted that the Legacy was flying at the wrong altitude, claiming that under lost communications protocols, the pilots should have changed altitude in accordance with the values stipulated in their flight plan. At the location of impact, the flight-planned altitude was 38,000 feet. Did controllers assume the pilots had gone ahead and climbed to that height?

As I stated last time, flight plan altitudes are just that, for planning purposes. They are, for all intents and purposes, a request. The altitude at which you'll actually fly is dictated by one or more subsequent clearances from ATC. I had written that flight plan altitudes "may have meaning in the event of radio communications failure." In fact they don't; the proper reading of rule No. 2, above, has nothing to do with flight plans. It has to do with assigned clearances and direct instructions from ATC. And in this case, all clearances and instructions, from the very beginning, stipulated 37,000 feet.

One possibly important question is whether Brazilian regulations, unbeknownst to the pilots, are different from standard FAA/ICAO regulations when it comes to altitude selection after radio failure. (Researching this has proved exceptionally difficult, but there's no reason or evidence to suggest they aren't the same.) Still, at the very least, even if they had anticipated the Legacy climbing to 38,000 feet, controllers ought to have broadcast this directive into the blind. Often during radio difficulty, one of the two parties is still able to hear instructions, if not acknowledge them, perfectly well. Controllers also should have warned the Gol jet that they weren't absolutely certain what the Legacy was up to. According to the transcripts, a number of broadcasts were made into the blind, but none of them made reference to any altitude.

It sounds to me that controllers suffered a breakdown of what pilots call "situational awareness." That's a fancy way of saying they lost track of what was happening.

Last, if not least, is the transponder/TCAS issue, given a good vetting here last Friday. TCAS (or traffic alert and collision avoidance system) warnings would have, should have, warned both crews as they approached each other, independent of anything going on at air traffic control. Why this didn't happen is a perplexing mystery -- though, judging from everything else we know, it is not a crucial one, and it avoids the key questions: What was ATC thinking and doing? Why did controllers not make efforts to determine the Legacy's altitude?

Whatever the answers, as so often is the case in air crashes, we appear to have a combination of highly unlikely circumstances -- innocuous on their own, but deadly in combination -- compounding into tragedy: lost communications, erroneous expectations and malfunctioning equipment.

If you're hungry for more information, I'd recommend the January issue of Aviation Safety magazine, whose staff has put together an exhaustive dissection of the incident.

Everybody square with that? Good, so let's move on to things less technical and more seasonal ...

This being Ask the Pilot's final installment for 2006, we'll start with a brief look back at the most notable air travel stories of the past 12 months. What were they?

It's hard to pick a winner, so to speak, though certainly the collision in South America, with implications aeronautical, political and personal (154 fatalities, including the friend of an acquaintance of mine), is not to be overlooked. Also still fresh in our memories is the tragic crash in Lexington, Ky., of a Comair regional jet on Aug. 27. The early-morning accident killed 49 people after the crew apparently became disoriented and attempted takeoff from a too-short runway.

Oddly enough, however, the Kentucky mishap underscores how, at least for Americans, one of the most important events of 2006 isn't the one that happened, but the one that didn't. Although the Comair crash ranks as the deadliest on North American soil in more than five years, we are still yet to suffer a truly large-scale catastrophe since the loss of American Airlines Flight 587 in November 2001. While it's little consolation to those who perished in Lexington, this nearly perfect safety streak is arguably the most impressive in the history of U.S. commercial aviation.

Speaking of things that never happened, how could we forget last summer's liquid-bomb terror scare. In case you were living on Neptune at the time and missed the news, British police broke up an alleged London-based scheme to bring down several U.S. airliners using hard-to-detect liquid explosives. The public continues to believe that authorities rushed in and saved thousands of lives in the nick of time. Quite the contrary. What makes the story so special is how much of an overblown ruse the whole thing was, and just how preposterous our reaction to it has been. The fact that both alleged ringleaders of the plot have been released without charge has gone scarcely noticed by the press. Meanwhile, despite assertions by experts that the types of bombs alleged in the scheme are all but impossible to brew, millions of travelers remain subject to absurd prohibitions of liquids, gels and aerosols from their carry-on bags. (Lithium-ion computer batteries pose a more serious threat to that five-year safety streak than liquid explosives.) But you knew all that. Several weeks of this column were devoted to this infuriating cock-and-bull opera. The most salient of them (in my opinion) are viewable here, here and here.

On that note, next time you're in the security line and the guard makes off with your illegal can of shaving cream, see if you can't grab it back for a moment. Raise the can skyward and, in the most booming voice you can muster, proclaim a toast -- a toast to the Transportation Security Administration, recipient of Ask the Pilot's first annual Hook, Line and Sinker Award, honoring the agency's shameless gullibility and abuse of the flying public.

[Round of applause]

Elsewhere, my first ever Schadenfreude (mine) Trophy is hereby awarded to Airbus. Continued troubles for the European manufacturer's A380 program ensure that the elegant Boeing 747 will retain its position as the industry's most impressive and influential jetliner for that much longer -- possibly for good. I present this accolade tongue-in-cheek, of course, as no true aerophile would champion the demise of the world's second-largest plane maker, but regulars to this page know of my distaste for the A380's ugly, overinflated profile and my corresponding fondness for the sublimity of the 747's. While Boeing went back to the future in announcing it would soon produce an updated 747 -- one that retains, and even improves upon, the original's magnificent lines -- the A380 has been racked by setbacks, punctuated by last summer's wiring snafu that led to resignations of Airbus CEO Gustav Humbert and program manager Charles Champion. Deliveries have fallen two years behind schedule. Airbus now says at least 420 aircraft need to be built for the company to break even, more than double the number presently accounted for. In November, delays prompted Federal Express to cancel a $2.3 billion order for 10 A380 freighters. Several other carriers have deferred deliveries or are reconsidering their orders (although Singapore Airlines tops a short list of customers who have asked for more). But gloating would be remiss. The 747 too was at first beset by serious teething problems and lack of sales. The plane nearly bankrupted Boeing before the company went on to sell more examples than any other model in its inventory, save for the eternally popular 737.

[Round of applause]

Airline of the Year? The eligibility list for this one is long. How about Air Canada, for the introduction of its highly popular a la carte pricing system, an innovation that allows passengers to "build" their own fares based on which amenities and services they desire on a given flight. But my criteria are more romantic than pragmatic, so I'm giving the prize to Delta. Despite the shackles of bankruptcy, the Atlanta-based giant has pressed forward with one of the most aggressive international expansion campaigns of any carrier in recent years, capped in early December by commencement of service to three African cities -- the first for a U.S. major since 1991. Delta hopes to unveil a bankruptcy restructuring plan by the end of this week, designed in part to ward off a hostile takeover bid from US Airways.

[Round of applause]

Speaking of which, how about some catcalls for US Airways. Not necessarily for its uninvited overtures to Delta, but for coming up with one of the more regrettable image makeovers we've seen in a long time. (Hey, no sneering, this wouldn't be Ask the Pilot without some piddling diversion into the nuances of airline identity.) With its latest livery, US Airways goes from first to worst. The scheme it supersedes, handsomely displayed in this photograph of an Airbus A320 on the tarmac in Cairo, Egypt (I never realized the Pyramids were dark like that), was cool, clean and classy ... Here, let my book do the talking:

With its smoky, post-apocalyptic gray and unadorned outline of the American flag, a US Airways jet is, at a quick glance, drably reminiscent of a military transport. But look again. The slight red accenting is remarkably effective, the typeface refined and elegant. This one's the winner. Overall grade: A

All that is gone now, replaced by this lethargic palette -- a spiritless blue and white base and a childish red stripe. The design was conceived after the 2005 merger between US Airways and America West, presumably as a gesture of partnership and assimilation. The flag and font are US Airways; the lightly sprayed fuselage jags are America West. Couldn't they just have given every employee a watch? Instead, the rest of us have to look at their ugly planes for the next however many years. Like so much in this country, the paint job smacks of quick, down-market and cheap.

But, hey, that's the airlines for you. And, I suppose, if there's anything permanent in this crazy business, it's change. Who knows what the year ahead might bring.

[Round of applause]

Author's choice: The five best Ask the Pilot columns of 2006

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What's the matter with airports? Noise, escalators, carpets and plastic

What's more enjoyable than flying? A ride on a Turkish bus, of course

Letter from Mojave

Airports and photography

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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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