Ask the pilot

The pilot weighs in on Knee Defenders, TV-B-Gone, airport security -- anything but theoretical conveyor belts!

Published January 12, 2007 12:30PM (EST)

Some columns come easier than others. Occasionally it feels like I'm chiseling from stone. Certainly last week's airplane-on-a-treadmill debate belongs in this category. Talk about a headache: "Imagine a plane is sitting on a massive conveyor belt, as wide and as long as a runway. The conveyer belt is designed to exactly match the speed of the wheels, moving in the opposite direction. Can the plane take off?"

Answer: Who cares? Or, well, yes, it can. Or I think so. Or somebody thinks so. Already I've forgotten (and consensus has it that Paul Camp may have led us astray with his focus on friction coefficients), but if you missed it and can't live without the answer, the archives await you.

Not a terribly engaging topic, I admit (see the Go-Arounds section at the end of this article). But neither was it, as some have suggested, my being lazy. "I assume that Mr. Smith had this in his 'filler' folder and was enjoying the holiday instead of writing a column," remarked one reader. Not exactly. I'd be ashamed to tell you how many hours that damned story cost me, and how many drafts it took to get right. The point wasn't to take the week off, it was to serve up something different for a change.

But if it makes you feel better, the first of my New Year's resolutions is that from now on I'm staying clear of aerodynamic controversies and theoretical conveyor belts. Why waste valuable gray matter on fantastical brainteasers when the world of air travel is already plenty rich with compelling mysteries and conundrums -- the kind that don't need calculators or input from physics professors. Haven't you ever wondered how many frequent-flier miles can fit on the head of a pin? Or consider the many ethical dilemmas faced by passengers:

Is it ethical, for example, to answer "yes" when the stewardess asks if you've reviewed the emergency exit row seating conditions when you haven't? (Not because you didn't want to, necessarily, but because the FAA has made the task impossible, turning a few simple instructions into 5,000 words of legalese.) Is it ethical to use the lavatory when the seat belt sign is illuminated? Is it ethical to install a Knee Defender anti-recline mechanism on the seat in front of you?

I have mixed feelings on such matters, particularly use of the Knee Defender -- a mischievous little gadget that allows you to be a tad more comfortable at the expense of making your fellow traveler a tad less comfortable. My sympathies if you're one of the many fliers who've had their laptop computer crushed by an unthinking passenger's rapid recline; nevertheless I find it hard to endorse such a thing.

Instead, allow me to recommend an altogether different device -- one equally mischievous but that, at least in my mind, avoids any moral hand-wringing. It's called TV-B-Gone, and you can order one here. As countless travelers surely would agree, few things in life are more intrusive and irritating than those infernal gate-side monitors blaring the CNN Airport Network. Now, with the covert click of a small black button, TV-B-Gone emits an infrared pulse that will silence these satanic chatterboxes within seconds.

Most of them, anyway. According to inventor Mitch Altman, CNN has begun putting wooden cases around its screens (it owns the actual sets, in addition to the programming they carry) that block the remote-control signal. TV-B-Gone won't work on the enclosed sets from a distance, Altman tells me, but will work if you're brazen enough for a close-range operation. "You need to walk right up," he says, "and point the unit directly at the bottom of the TV, where the sensor is located." It's a dirty job, but somebody needs to do it. "I've done this several times," says Altman, "and never had anyone complain. In fact, I've had people thank me."

As well they should. It seems that CNN has no qualms about force-feeding its noise pollution to millions of captive travelers, most of whom would prefer peace and quiet instead of an endless video loop of sanitized headlines. Reportedly, before settling on the wooden enclosure scheme, the network considered retrofitting thousands of TVs with special sensors able to differentiate the TV-B-Gone's signal from a "real" one.

Now, if only solving the problem of airport security could be so easy as pressing a button.

Sorry, did I say airport security? Here it's still January, and already I'm breaking my second New Year's resolution: no more rants about the Transportation Security Administration until springtime at the earliest. Alas, I'm forced to reconsider, though I believe my excuses are good ones.

First, it was recently announced that starting in February, the TSA will begin selling commercial advertisements at concourse checkpoints. As part of a one-year pilot program to help defer operating expenses, those bins and tables at the X-ray machine will be sprouting corporate logos. Airports will recruit companies willing to provide screening stations with so-called divestiture bins and composure tables in exchange for ad space.

Am I the only one who finds this vulgar and insulting? Here we are, tarting up what is supposed to be a facet of national security with the colors of Dunkin' Donuts and Chick-fil-A. What's next, TSA guards themselves (or our troops in Iraq) wearing soccer-style uniforms emblazoned with the names of corporate sponsors?

But while it's easy to be cynical, it was just a matter of time before the proverbial market got its tentacles into the airport security business. First it was the registered traveler program, the scheme that allows preapproved individuals to pay an annual fee in exchange for preferential screening, and now this. The security-industrial complex humming right along: advertisers getting publicity, contractors getting millions of dollars, TSA getting free equipment, and the traveling public getting ...

My second grievance involves an experience I had several days ago at Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta. Just when I thought I'd seen everything: As we know from an earlier column, passengers arriving at U.S. airports from cities overseas must, after clearing customs and immigration, pass through a TSA checkpoint prior to boarding a domestic connecting flight. But what if I told you that in Atlanta, passengers arriving from overseas must pass through the checkpoint simply to exit the airport?

Let's say you live in Atlanta and you've just come in from Frankfurt, Germany. You're not connecting, you're headed for the parking lot or the taxi stand or the MARTA station. Well, sorry, pal, first you have to stand in line, take off your coat and shoes, remove your computer, hand over your liquids and gels, and have your bags X-rayed. Mind you, this is the world's busiest airport in passengers (about 86 million annually). On a recent afternoon in the arrivals hall, the checkpoint line was half an hour long. Not only is the procedure inconvenient, it's bad for business, as people making tight connections are trapped in a queue behind those merely trying to leave the building.

Looking for answers, I called TSA headquarters in Washington, and was promptly put on hold for more than 45 minutes. During that stretch I was treated to an interminable tape loop of recorded baggage recommendations, including a reminder that "dips and sauces" are now among airport contraband.

I finally reached Christopher White, the agency's regional spokesman, who provided a logical, if semi-satisfactory explanation: At Hartsfield-Jackson, all passengers landing from overseas collect their checked luggage and pass through U.S. customs and immigration within the international arrivals building, better known as concourse E. Having had access to their bags, these passengers cannot reenter the airport's secured areas without rescreening. That makes sense, as conceivably one could remove a dangerous item -- a legally packed weapon, say, or a 5-ounce tube of toothpaste -- from his or her suitcase. Unfortunately, concourse E was not constructed with a dedicated exit route. All channels of egress -- namely the interterminal walkways and/or "people mover" train -- pass through each of the remaining four concourses (five, actually, if you count the "T-Gates") on the way out. So, after clearing customs, suitcases are shuttled ahead separately to central baggage claim, while their owners are herded toward the X-ray machines.

"It's troublesome for people, I realize," says White, who reminds us that a new and better-designed international facility is scheduled to open at ATL by 2010. "But remember, concourse E was designed long before Sept. 11."

Be that as it may, passengers who've been in contact with checked luggage have always required rechecks before proceeding through secure zones, have they not? Sounds more like a design flaw. Not providing a dedicated exit was, if you ask me, a little like forgetting to install bathrooms. There are plenty of nice things about concourse E -- it's an attractive and spacious building with some interesting gate-side art exhibits -- but this isn't one of them.

And we have to wonder, what happens if an arriving passenger doesn't cooperate? What if somebody refuses to take off his shoes? Is he prohibited from going home?

Somebody ought to try it and find out. Seriously, after months of ridiculing the TSA's methods, I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps the best way of undermining the agency's folly isn't to employ some protest and civil disobedience. Granted, nobody wants to get his or her name on a government no-fly list, but in a nation where the mildest injustices bring out the pickets and sandwich boards, we've been abashedly sheepish at the airport. Where's the uppity David Stempler and his Air Travelers Association? Where's old Nat Heatwole? For that matter, where's Boyd Rice or Jello Biafra? That's so early '80s, I know, but they were such incisive pranksters, and what better laboratory for farce than a TSA checkpoint? What happens, for instance, if I try to carry a snowman onto an airplane?

While you're mulling that over, allow me to correct something. A few paragraphs ago I spoke of "customs and immigration." That's a misnomer, of course, now that the name has been changed to the more paramilitary-sounding Customs and Border Protection. One of those games we play with signage and uniforms. We don't want newly landed foreigners getting any funny ideas as they wait to be photographed and fingerprinted.

And finally, speaking of pranks and mischief, the last of my New Year's resolutions is to never again overestimate my readers' sense of humor. In my final column of 2006, while critiquing the new U.S. Airways color scheme, I included a link to a photograph -- here it is again -- showing one of the carrier's Airbus A320s, "on the tarmac in Cairo, Egypt." No fewer than a dozen e-mails soon arrived offering free geography lessons. The picture was taken in Las Vegas, not Cairo.

Unless it's my own sense of humor that's the problem. It was a joke, people, just a joke. The idea of a U.S. Airways A320 in Cairo is, at least for those of us familiar with the business, silly enough to start with. And while I might be a lousy comedian, I have a pretty good idea what the real Pyramids look like.

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Re: Treadmills and tedium

The following parody of Ask the Pilot's Jan. 5 installment was submitted by reader (and pilot) Michael Kennedy of Houston, and is best appreciated when read in tandem with the original.

Last week, Salon columnist Patrick Smith set my indigestion abuzz by rekindling an old brainteaser about whether a theoretical airplane would be able to take off from a theoretical treadmill. The puzzle was "a ripping good waste of time" (Smith's words), and appeals for clarification quickly faded. Will or won't the column fly, people wanted to know, imploring me to weigh in.

Belatedly, and grudgingly, I will now do so. Such topics tend to induce the rapid closure of my eyelids, and while I'd like to tell you this is the kind of blather that keeps readers engaged and alert, nothing could be further from the truth. (Mostly they're just bemoaning the loss of their time.) Nevertheless, here goes ...

Imagine an infinite number of monkeys are sitting at an infinite number of typewriters, and they're typing for infinity. How long would it take them to come up with David Pogue's blog followed by Patrick Smith's column, word for word and in order?

When I last checked the reader feedback pages, 860 people had posted their opinions, split about 50/50 between those who say the columns could be typed in 15 minutes or less, and those who think the columns already were typed by only two monkeys on two typewriters. If you look carefully you can locate my own typewriter, flatly declaring that no, absolutely not, the column will not get off the ground. "Heaven help us," I snarked. "The column will not fly. Of course it won't fly."

And why should it? How can it fly if it's not interesting? For a column to get and stay aloft, it needs lift; it needs a subject. The column won't fly because for all its efforts, it isn't moving. You have zero interest and zero entertainment.

This seemed so obvious that it needed a caveat: "On the other hand, if you were able to generate a tremendous enough amount of words," I noted in a follow-up post, "and redirect the meaning of those words, you could, conceivably, lift the column off like a rocket." Heck, you can make anything "interesting" if you stick enough bullshit under it. But that isn't fair to the spirit of the premise.

Except wait a minute, what is the premise?

Don't ask me, I've found something better to read.

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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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