Ask the pilot

From giant pillows and computer-crushing seats to sudoku mania and quartz porcupines: Musings on the state of air travel.

Published April 13, 2007 11:05AM (EDT)

One of the surprisingly pleasant things about the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif., is that passengers board the aircraft the old-fashioned way, using a drive-up staircase. There's something dramatic about stepping onto a jet this way: the ground-level approach along the tarmac, followed by the slow ascent. The effect is similar to watching the opening credits of a film -- it's a sort of formal introduction to the journey. And to the aircraft itself. The standard boarding technique makes the plane itself feel almost irrelevant; you're merely passing from one annoying interior space (terminal) to another (cabin). This is much more impressive, and allows you to appreciate how physically imposing a jetliner really is.

I'm vexed by the widespread phenomenon of adolescent girls carrying gigantic fluffy pillows onto airplanes. Granted it's a helpful idea, now that many carriers no longer dispense even tiny, nonfluffy pillows. The trouble is, people like me are out of the club. Grown men can't walk through airports with gigantic fluffy pillows unless we're willing to get laughed at. We're stuck with those stupid inflatable neck brace things. (And I wonder, do the girls keep their pillows for an entire vacation, or are they discarded on arrival and replaced with new pillows for the trip home?)

I wonder if anybody is keeping track of how many laptop computers are destroyed each day by the viselike recline crush of economy-class seats. As the seat in front of you comes back, the tray table is geared to remain horizontal. This action jams your screen between the flat surface and the upper portion of the seat, into the rectangular recess vacated by the tray. If the obnoxious man or woman in front of you decides to recline quickly, there's almost no time to react, and the force can be violent. One solution is to angle the screen slightly forward -- making it more difficult to see. Better, try to get a seat in the emergency-exit row, where the tables are stowed in the armrests. Even without the recline hazard, working with a laptop in economy is arduous and highly uncomfortable. The positioning makes for carpal tunnel hell, and you're prone to elbowing your neighbor.

The second pleasant thing about Bob Hope Airport is the name: Bob Hope Airport. Not that I ever had much of an opinion about the famous noodle-nosed comedian, but if American airport names need anything, it's a bit of personality.

And by personality I do not mean the likes of "Tom Ridge Field" or "Houston George Bush Intercontinental." Similarly, I remain uncomfortable with the renaming of Washington National and Newark airports. Reagan National? Plain old "National" was the perfect moniker for the diminutive, domestic-only airport of Washington, D.C. (There should be a strict no-presidents rule, up to and including switching New York-JFK back to its original name, Idlewild.) And although I had no love -- who could? -- for the drabness of "Newark International," the pseudo-patriotic puffery of "Newark Liberty International" is almost unbearable. The change was made after the 2001 terrorist attacks just across the Hudson, and is yet more fulfillment of our nation's hunger for heartstring gibberish. I agree that Newark needed something different, if for no other reason than to stave off confusion, especially among travelers arriving from overseas. ("But I don't want to go to Newark, I want to go to New York!") Meanwhile, the Statue of Liberty, an icon of New York City, is barely a wingspan away. Still. "Hudson River International" would have served the same cause, and has a lot more character.

Last November, in a column about turbulence, I referred to having once seen a remarkable video of a Boeing 777 undergoing a turbulence stress test. To my surprise, YouTube has the video. Passengers frightened by rough air should find it reassuring. It gives you some idea of how much bending a wing can absorb before it structurally fails.

The most alarming trend to strike air travel in the past half-century is not suicide hijackings, surly service or overzealous pat-downs from the Transportation Security Administration. No, the most troubling thing about flying, and perhaps humanity in general, is sudoku, this generation's dumbed-down answer to crossword puzzles. Sudoku was invented by an American, but popularized in Japan. Need you be reminded that these are the people who eat meat-flavored ice cream, carry women's panties around in their wallets, and think it's fun to go indoor fishing? I'm not saying the game isn't challenging. But so is solving quadratic equations, or sword swallowing. That doesn't mean we should all be doing it for fun. People enjoy sudoku, I suspect, because it requires a lot of thinking, but only from a small and highly specialized corner of the mind. It's very egalitarian, in a way, because it's an entirely left-brain exercise with a single and absolute solution. (I think back again, as I often do, to my favorite movie of the 1980s, Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." Mind-numbed citizens of Gilliam's sick dystopia entertained themselves with a small, toylike device that dropped a pendant onto a board, randomly indicating a result of "yes" or "no.") More to the point, you can be a failure at sudoku without guilt. Crossword puzzles make you feel bad about yourself -- for not knowing the capital of Canada or forgetting the name of a Shakespeare play. Sudoku is numbers, and for most of us there's little shame in being lousy at numbers.

Am I being too harsh? Judging from the immense piles of sudoku books in airport newsstands -- at last count, they have outsold the Bible, as well as every dictionary and cookbook ever published -- I've just alienated myself from every airline passenger on earth, along with 95 percent of my readership. Try not to hate me. It's possible that my anti-sudoku feelings are nothing more than jealousy: Getting my own book into terminal bookshops, despite the backing of a major publisher and despite having written it explicitly for airline travelers, proved all but impossible. Try to imagine the agony when I ask a store manager if he has ever stocked a copy of "Ask the Pilot -- Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel," only to be told, "No," followed by, "Is that a children's book?" Meanwhile, looming behind me is a pile of "Sudoku for Dummies" stacked so tall that it literally scrapes the ceiling.

There are no other pleasant things about Bob Hope Airport. The terminal is claustrophobic, noisy and dirty.

If you're like most frequent travelers, you've often wondered why all airplane interiors have exactly the same smell. You know the smell I mean -- it hits you in the jetway even before you step aboard. Nothing else in the world smells like that, and it's uniform across the industry. Boeings, Airbuses, Douglases, no matter the airline or country, they all share that identical cabin odor. So, what is it? Search me. I once called an engineer at Boeing, and he didn't know either. I know that it's not, as people will assume, any type of disinfectant or spray, but otherwise I'm unsure. Perhaps it's a specific material used in aircraft furnishings, or else an effect of the air conditioning system.

What's to hate most about the newest security procedures? The X-raying of footwear is now mandatory. You probably thought it was mandatory all along, but that's not the case. TSA wasn't prone to admitting it, but prior to the liquid bomb ruse of 2006, "Can you take your shoes off, sir?" was technically a request and not an order. I'd gotten into the habit of answering with, "That's all right, I'd rather keep them on." Part of the fun was watching the expressions on the screeners' faces. Usually, they'd swab my sneakers, they'd run the swab through an explosives sniffer, and off I'd go. It was actually less of a hassle, and sometimes quicker, than sending them down the belt. And it was making a statement. But all that changed last summer, for the extremely valid reason that a dimwitted group of wannabe saboteurs fantasized about blowing up planes using impossible-to-concoct liquid bombs. The ensuing carry-on restrictions were farcical enough, but will somebody please explain what shoes have to do with the alleged plot?

A new Delta Air Lines livery will be unveiled shortly, timed to coincide with the carrier's expected emergence from bankruptcy. This will be Delta's third revision in the past 10 years, and radically different from its past schemes. Somebody leaked a rendering to the forum over at, and the reaction has been one of widespread revulsion. What do I think? Expect a full critique once the curtain is officially up.

AeroMexico operates a nonstop flight between Tokyo and Tijuana, Mexico. Why does that strike me as bizarre? On one hand it's a sensible idea: Mexico City's high elevation makes it a tough airport for long-haul takeoffs, and connecting through Tijuana avoids the hassles of, say, Los Angeles. But still ... Tijuana?

You've seen the movie "Borat" and obviously you're wondering about the airlines of Kazakhstan. Last year, when comedian Sacha Baron Cohen hosted an MTV awards show in Europe, his Borat character arrived in a rickety "Air Kazakh" plane, accompanied by a one-eyed pilot swilling the requisite bottle of vodka. (All satire involving airlines of the former Soviet Union features vodka.) Up to that point, Kazakh officials had been mostly tolerant of Cohen's mockery, but they didn't take kindly to an insult against the country's national airline. After the broadcast, Yerzhan Ashykbayev, a spokesman of the Kazakh Foreign Ministry, threatened legal action. But for the record, there is no such thing as "Air Kazakh." The airline of Kazakhstan is called Air Astana, based in the capital city of the same name. Established in 2001, it flies a dozen or so 737s, 757s and Fokker turboprops. In Soviet days, the capital of Kazakhstan was Alma-Ata, which later became known as Almaty, located about 800 miles south of Astana. Little-known fact: The world's first supersonic jetliner, the Tupolev Tu-144, made its debut with Aeroflot on the glamorous Moscow to Alma-Ata route in 1975.

A dog named "Kazakh" makes an appearance in at least three Kurt Vonnegut (RIP) stories. Vonnegut was also responsible for one of my all-time-favorite expressions, "quartz porcupine," used to describe the view of Manhattan from the air. Passing over Gotham at 30,000 feet, sunlight glinting off the island's clustered skyscrapers ... it's perfect. In an interview years ago, Vonnegut was asked how he'd choose to die. "In a plane crash on Mount Kilimanjaro" was his answer.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Seeking reader input

At some point in the next few weeks, I'm planning to feature a two-part glossary of "airline-ese." Passengers are routinely mystified (or merely amused) by the jargon, euphemisms and strange-sounding acronyms dispensed by gate agents, pilots and flight attendants. For example: What the hell is a "ramp," and what is the "final approach"? From the insider's perspective, it's hard to know which terms are the most widely mocked, misunderstood or not understood at all. So, I'm soliciting your help. Please submit examples directly via e-mail to

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business Transportation Security Administration