Ask the pilot

The worst thing about hotel rooms? It's not the ugly carpeting. Plus: Why don't planes carry parachutes for passengers?

Published October 19, 2007 10:31AM (EDT)

There are lots of things to dislike about hotel rooms: temperamental air conditioning, ugly carpeting, toe-breaking doorjambs. Here's another one: cardboard brochures. Nowadays, every hotel amenity, from room service to Wi-Fi, is hawked through one or more annoying cardboard advertisements displayed throughout the room. You can hardly put your bag down without knocking over a pile of them. They're everywhere -- on the dresser, in the closet, on your pillow. To be perfectly honest, I'm a bit compulsive when it comes to clutter, but a dozen or more of these things in the typical single room is ridiculous. I resent having to spend five minutes, checking in after an exhausting red-eye, gathering up these diabolical doodads and heaving them into a corner where they belong. The photograph that accompanies this column was taken a couple of weeks ago at the Hilton in Athens, Greece. It shows a particularly bountiful harvest of at least 15 laminated cards, signs, menus and assorted promotional materials. About the only useful item is the notepad. (This in a hotel that charges 6 euros for a Coke from the minibar and 26 euros for Internet access.)

I wouldn't mind if this litter was placed unobtrusively, but it tends to be exactly in the way -- plastered across the desk, for instance, or hogging up what limited shelf space exists in the bathroom. My favorites are the signs boasting of the hotel's dedication to the environment. It has become trendy to offer guests the option of reusing their sheets and towels instead of receiving a freshly laundered stack every morning. To request a new, water-hogging set laden with caustic detergents, throw your barely used towels on the bathroom floor. Placing them over the back of a chair or hanging them on the rack, on the other hand, is a gesture of earthly stewardship to be respected and appreciated by the underpaid housekeepers. Notice Hilton's "We care!" card in the photo. That one is pretty basic compared with Holiday Inn's oversize, three-panel triptych, which is half the size of the television set. Never mind the waste of paper and ink; I've yet to stay in a hotel that actually honored my attempts to reuse a towel. Try it sometime. Unless one hides the towels in a drawer, the housekeepers inevitably hunt them down and wash them, placard or no placard.

But I digress ...

After landing, the rule to remain seated with belts fastened until the plane has come to a complete stop seems antiquated and petulant. How about allowing people to stand sooner?

I'd be somewhat open to the idea of relaxing the seat belt rule, but allowing passengers to stand during taxi-in would be chaotic and unsafe. Currently, the familiar "ding" of the seat belt sign after docking results in clogged aisles and a frenzied grab for luggage. This same chaos during taxi would greatly impede an emergency evacuation. Taxiing might seem to be the lowest-risk portion of any flight, but there have been several incidents and accidents involving slow-moving aircraft on aprons and taxiways. (Consider the recent fire that broke out aboard a Chinese 737 after landing in Okinawa.) The risk of a full-blown emergency is extremely slight when maneuvering close to the gate, but sudden stops are very common thanks to the proximity of airplanes, vehicles, workers and equipment. True, the aircraft isn't moving very quickly, but jamming on the brakes at even a few miles per hour will send passengers toppling, bags falling, ankles breaking. Moreover, letting people stand would offer no real advantage other than providing a few extra seconds to get your things together. People have nowhere to go, obviously, until the door is opened.

Maybe this will sound like a crazy question, but why don't commercial planes carry parachutes for each passenger? Life jackets are pointless, but wouldn't parachutes occasionally save the day? Granted, a novice skydiver would be risking life and limb, but it's a better option than hitting the ground at 400 miles per hour.

A reasonable idea on the surface, but fraught with complications. Ignoring for a moment the issues of cost and weight and the extreme danger the average passenger would face while leaping from a plane with no prior experience, the nature of aviation disasters -- they tend to happen suddenly, with little warning, and usually during takeoff or landing -- means that chutes would seldom be helpful. In the majority of crashes, elapsed time from awareness of an impending accident to the impact itself is a measure of seconds. And as those who've done it can attest (I am not one of them), normal skydiving takes place under tightly controlled parameters. To even entertain the idea of jumpers making it safely to the ground, a plane would need to be in stable flight, and at a low enough speed and altitude -- yet high enough for a chute to properly deploy. How many times, in the whole history of civil aviation, has a crew known for certain that a serious crash was imminent, yet still had time, in theory, to prepare for a coordinated mass evacuation? Very few. One that comes to mind, maybe, is the 1985 Japan Airlines catastrophe. After a bulkhead rupture and rudder failure, the Boeing 747 floundered about for several minutes before going down near Mount Fuji. (With 520 fatalities, the disaster still stands as the second worst on record.) Had chutes been aboard, we can speculate that at least some of the passengers might have survived. Many would have been killed in the process of jumping, including those who'd slammed into the 747's wings, engines and empennage, making a bad situation worse. It'd be an awfully risky proposition unless a crew feels for certain that a problem is nonsurvivable, and has the time to prepare. That rarely, if ever, is the case.

A few single-engine private planes have built-in parachutes for use in certain emergencies -- an engine failure over rough terrain, etc. I know what you're thinking -- imagine that crippled JAL 747 floating to the ground under a giant chute. Unfortunately, the size and weight of jetliners make any commercial application extraordinarily difficult (a fully laden 747 weighs nearly a million pounds), in addition to the factors discussed above. The four-seater piloted by New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle was equipped with such a parachute. Lidle and his flight instructor never had time to deploy it before slamming into a Manhattan apartment building in 2006.

As for the pointlessness of life jackets, yours is a widely held opinion, though not an accurate one. The facts and fallacy of the proverbial "water landing" were covered in this column previously.

Looking out the window on a flight from Helsinki, Finland, to New York's JFK, I noticed a long, dark streak trailing across the surface of the cloud bank below -- the shadow of the jet's contrail. But there was no shadow of the plane itself. Instead, a giant optical bloom appeared where the shadow should have been. It was a circular halo with two concentric colored rings, like a lens flare.

(Special thanks to Gregory Dicum's enjoyable book "Window Seat" for help with this one.) The phenomenon described is called a "glory." As those (few) passengers who still look out the window have probably noticed, glories are quite common under the right conditions of cloud cover and sunlight angle. The aura of colored bands is caused by sunlight diffracted and reflected back toward its source by water droplets inside a cloud. Sometimes you do see the airplane's shadow directly in the halo's center; other times, as seemed to be the case during your flight from Helsinki, one sees only the rings.

I have heard that pilots often see strange things in the sky, i.e., UFOs, but through tacit agreement will not openly discuss these sightings out of fear of embarrassment and possible career suicide. True or false?

I have to laugh at the notion of there being a tacit agreement among pilots over anything, let alone UFO sightings. And although plenty of things in aviation are tantamount to "career suicide," withholding information about UFOs isn't one of them. For the record, I have never met a pilot who claims to have had a UFO sighting, and the topic is one that almost never comes up -- even during those long, dark flights across the ocean.

A friend of mine was waiting for a flight at LAX and noticed an El Al plane taxiing for takeoff, flanked by a firetruck that was spraying the plane with water. Any idea what they were doing? This was midsummer in Los Angeles, so deicing fluid it wasn't. Neither was there a fire, since the airplane kept taxiing, and promptly departed.

It sounds to me as if the El Al captain was retiring. Often, when a crew member is making his or her final flight, the fire department comes out and sprays the airplane with water -- much the way firefighting boats spray incoming ships during special events.

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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