Ask the Pilot

What have we come to when foreign airlines tout around-the-world travel that avoids the U.S.? Plus: Make your own airline route maps. And: Wizz Air?

Published August 10, 2007 10:30AM (EDT)

All right, no doubt you caught the latest Transportation Security Administration alert. Allegedly, would-be saboteurs engaged in terror-attack rehearsals have been caught trying to sneak bomb-making materials past airport security. Over the past several weeks, we are told, screeners have confiscated various improvised components -- including, um, wires sticking from blocks of cheese. A new twist on the "dry runs" conspiracy we've been following for the past three years. I have decided not to author an entire column on this bizarre story because I run the risk of repeating myself for the umpteenth time. (For reference, click over to my earlier discussions, such as this one or this one.) I'm reluctant to dismiss the warning out of hand, but no less disturbing than the threat itself, provided that it's real, is the way we've accepted the government's account at face value. The alert was sounded on every major network, radio station and newspaper in the country, but I am yet to hear a single journalist ask the obvious question: Who were these alleged smugglers, and where are they now? Let me get this straight: People have been caught smuggling deadly components through airport security, and nobody knows or cares who they are? They must have names. Were they not arrested or held for questioning? Or did guards simply confiscate their rigged cheese and let them pass? How can it be that potential attackers disappear into the ether like that? Call me naive, but something's fishy. When it comes to airport security, we've been sheep from the very beginning, but this emerging pattern of willing submission to vague, unconfirmable threats from invisible "terrorists" is pushing things to a new level.

Speaking of airport security, passengers were detained last month aboard a Continental Express flight after a brief altercation broke out involving "American Idol" star Clay Aiken. (I'd never heard of Aiken before, but the story made quick headlines thanks to the pop-culture tinderbox that is the American media.) I received a letter from a man who'd been on the plane. "After landing, we were forced to remain on board for more than 30 minutes, without being told why," he writes. "Most of us weren't aware that anything had happened. Then, federal agents came onto the plane and interviewed people sitting near the 'altercation' site before 'releasing' us. At one point the flight attendant said, 'This is 2007, and you need to watch what you say on a plane.'" That really gets me. Apparently it's the travelers' job to keep their mouths shut, when it ought to be the authorities' job not to overreact.

"Air New Zealand Offers Round-the-World Routing Avoiding the U.S." That was a recent headline from U.K.-based Business Traveler magazine. For the past several years, fliers bound from Australia and New Zealand to Europe by way of U.S. stopovers have been raising a ruckus about security policies that require all passengers, even those merely in transit to other countries, to clear U.S. immigration formalities -- a process that includes fingerprinting, photographing and baggage rechecking. Air New Zealand has responded with the launch of a service from Auckland to Europe with a hassle-free transfer at Vancouver, British Columbia, eliminating its long-standing Auckland-Los Angeles-London route. Air Canada is following suit with a nonstop Vancouver-Sydney flight, bypassing its traditional layover in Hawaii, which, in the words of the magazine, "will enable global travelers to avoid the United States." What have we come to?

For evasive nonanswers to these questions and more, check out Bruce Schneier's interview with TSA major-domo Kip Hawley. There are moments when the Kipper does all right under Schneier's questioning, and seems to have a wry sense of humor. Which goes to show you how dysfunctional government bureaucracies can be, and how powerless their leaders are when politics and public perception, not reality, are calling the shots. Here's a seemingly reasonable guy in charge of an agency whose on-the-ground operations are in many ways farcical.

Note from a recent trip to Africa: Seen from 35,000 feet, the surface of the Kalahari Desert has the exact texture of 40-grade sandpaper, sprayed lightly green.

After Hungary's Wizz Air splashed onto the scene (sorry) a few years ago, I was sure we'd hit the bottom of the barrel as far as airline names go. Not so fast. Now comes Skybus, a low-cost entrant based in Ohio. Could they not have tried a little harder? You can make the cheap-fares point without resorting to such awful connotations. (PeopleExpress, for example, had the right idea.) At least when the name Airbus was coined in the late 1960s, flying was still dignified and the pejorative not so obvious. Folks don't think of buses as convenient and inexpensive; they think of buses as dirty, crowded and tedious. Which, yeah, I know, is exactly how they've come to think of flying (one irony being that buses today are often more pleasant and comfortable than planes). But do they have to rub it in?

Flyglobespan, an upstart offering cheapo fares between the U.S. and Scotland, is pretty bad, too.

And I still don't know what an "AirTran" is.

There's an airline in Kazakhstan called Zhezkazan Zhez Air. There are five Z's in that name. I'm not sure how to pronounce it, but a loud sneeze should be a close enough approximation.

A pilot friend of mine worked for a time in Azerbaijan. The national airline of Azerbaijan is Azul, which according to Mike is pronounced "asshole."

"Delta Puts on a Tux" is how one person describes Delta Air Lines' post-bankruptcy livery, unveiled a few months ago and seen here. It seems the carrier is trying to project an image that is classy and elite. Good for Delta, but I'm unsure if the look projects a strong enough sense of identity. Up on the tail, the textured "widget" is rather handsome, but is it a recognized enough symbol -- compare it with the Pan Am globe, or the Qantas kangaroo -- to be successfully marketed as an abstraction? Too many people, particularly overseas where Delta is making huge strides, are liable to see it and wonder, "What airline is that?" The anemic fuselage could use more blue on the bottom, as well as an accent stripe of some kind. On the whole, however, it's a better uniform than either United's or U.S. Airways' latest efforts.

At JFK International, Delta has partnered with a company called U.S. Helicopter to provide more than a dozen daily copter flights between the airport and Manhattan, connecting Delta's Terminal 3 with both downtown and midtown heliports. The trip lasts eight minutes and fares begin at $159. It's a good idea, JFK being Delta's premier international hub and Manhattan being Manhattan, reminiscent of Pan Am's helicopter service of the mid-1980s. Delta's Terminal 3 is the former Pan Am Worldport. In earlier days, New York Airways flew Sikorskys between Kennedy and the midtown Pan Am Building (today known as the MetLife Building). These flights ended in 1977 after a crash on the skyscraper's rooftop killed five people, including a pedestrian below who was struck by falling debris.

When you're hungry and between flights these days, it's almost impossible to avoid the shopping mall food court fare that dominates most terminals. One exception is the anonymous restaurant inside La Guardia Airport's Marine Air Terminal (MAT). It's a cafeteria-style place on the left-hand side of the old rotunda. They call it Rocco's, but there are no signs advertising it as such. In fact there are no signs at all. Thus it's hard to find, and the clientele is mostly airport employees. If you're entering from the street, head for the silver, art deco doors to the left of the Delta Shuttle awning. It's good greasy spoon food, with absolutely no corporate affiliation -- one of a dwindling few indie restaurants to be found at a major airport. As an added bonus, the walls are decorated with historical photographs from the MAT's heyday, and the entrance takes visitors along the rotunda's famous "Flight" mural. Completed in 1952 by artist James Brooks, the mural traces the history of aviation from mythical to (then) modern, Icarus to flying boat. The painting's style is a nod at socialist realism, and at the height of '50s McCarthyism, in a controversy not unlike that surrounding Diego Rivera's famous mural at Rockefeller Center, it was declared socialist propaganda and covered over with gray paint. It remained hidden until 1977. The MAT rotunda is one of aviation's special places, but I've sat in there and watched: Most travelers don't even look up.

The Skytrax World Airline Awards are out for 2007. Singapore Airlines took in Airline of the Year honors. Here's a rundown of the other top scorers:

Best transatlantic airline: British Airways
Best transpacific airline: Qantas
Best cabin staff: Malaysia Airlines
Best in-flight entertainment: Emirates
Best first class: Qatar Airways
Best business class: Singapore Airlines
Best economy class: Korean Air
Best first-class catering: Gulf Air
Best business-class catering: Austrian Airways
Best economy-class catering: Etihad

Economy-class catering, now there's a concept. And is anybody surprised by the lack of Americans on that list? Meanwhile, Korea's Asiana Airlines has become the newest member of the Skytrax elite "5 Star Airline" club, a distinction recognizing "the highest standard of product across the different quality assessment categories, and consistently high standards of staff service delivery in onboard and airport environments." Asiana joins Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.

Pet peeve: Granted, a majority of airlines no longer offer the level of onboard service they once did, but a common complaint that fails to elicit my sympathy is the one about lack of space in economy class. There's this notion that airlines have been squeezing more and more seats into coach. Really that's not true, and hasn't been true since the 1970s or so. If anything, on average, there is greater room in economy than there used to be. Some of you might remember the likes of Laker Airways, which used to cram 345 people into its DC-10s. It's the absence of other amenities, I think, together with all the delays, screaming kids and security hassles, that has thrown the overall coach experience into starker relief. Travelers take their annoyance out on the most tangible discomforts.

Not to sound callous, but why is it news every time somebody dies aboard a commercial airliner? Most recently, it was a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles, on which a 92-year-old woman passed away. (Eerily, she was en route to her own daughter's funeral.) Something like 4 million people fly commercially each day around the world. Does it make the papers when somebody has a heart attack on the New York City subway or when somebody dies on a Greyhound bus? (And to answer the inevitable questions: Yes, there are procedures, differing airline to airline; no, a plane will not necessarily divert if somebody dies.)

Those of you who appreciate the weird Zen of airline route maps will appreciate the Flight Memory Web site. "Next time you're aloft, flip to the back pages of the in-flight magazine," I wrote some months ago. "I could spend hours studying those maps, immersed in a kind of pilot porno, besotted to speechless stupor by those three-panel foldouts and their exploding nests of arcs and lines." Maybe that's too much information, but now people like me can make our own.

As it prepares to enter scheduled service, the Airbus A380 has been busy with so-called proving runs and public relations junkets, flying around in the colors of Singapore Airlines and Emirates, its first two operators. There are hundreds of new photos posted over at, all of them confirming what we already knew: that the plane is grotesquely ugly. There are no flattering views of an A380. It is without question the most hideous airliner ever conceived.

On that note, if you're looking for a coffee-table book, I recommend Jeffrey Milstein's "AirCraft: The Jet as Art." Milstein's photos (the gallery exhibit ran earlier this year in New York and Los Angeles) are the thinking man's version of those three-view technical illustrations so commonly seen in airplane books. Each shot features a jetliner in direct profile, vibrantly and meticulously depicted against an all-white background. In the words of Walter Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum, Milstein's pictures "bridge the gap between lovers of art and lovers of airplanes." Indeed, as I've said before, if planes lack one thing, it's a measure of aesthetic credibility. Milstein grants his subject the kind of well-earned respect more commonly attributed to skyscrapers and bridges, showcasing the aircraft as a wonder of both technology and industrial design. "That these metal birds can gracefully lift from earth is amazing," says Milstein. "That they can return safely some hours later on another part of the globe is even more amazing." Couldn't have said it better myself.

Here's hoping that Milstein's book, unlike my own, has not been misclassified into the dusty "aviation" shelves by the geniuses who run the big chains. "Aviation" is where books go to die.

This is Part 2 of an occasional series. The first installment appears here.

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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