Ask the pilot

Not buying it when the pilot tells you weather is holding up your flight? iPhone to the rescue!

Published November 16, 2007 11:56AM (EST)

If you've been watching TV at all, you're by now familiar with Apple's iPhone blitz. You know the campaign I'm talking about. Each ad stars this or that insufferably regular Joe who proceeds to share some touchy-feely tale of how his iPhone all but saved the nation from calamity. As a rule, I don't like talking about television, especially commercials, but I'm obliged to address the iPhone spot featuring the pilot.

It goes like this: An airline pilot tells us about the time he was working a flight from Chicago to Newark, N.J. Before departure, he was notified by controllers of a three-hour weather delay. Suspicious, he whipped out his iPhone and browsed over to ("with our engines shut down," he carefully notes, avoiding any conflict with the rules). Noticing that the troublesome rain showers had already moved through, he contacted his dispatcher. The dispatcher "took another look" at conditions, and 30 minutes later the flight was cleared to go. IPhone to the rescue.

For the record, I've been an Apple user since the day I bought my first Mac Powerbook in 1994, but I despise this commercial so deeply that I need to leave the room every time it comes on. I've worked hard writing articles that provide passengers with an inside look at the difficult logistics of these situations (see related stories at the end of this article), and in 30 seconds Apple is able to hopelessly mislead millions of viewers, dumbing down the realities of flight delays and presenting airline operations as childish and unprofessional.

Incidentally, the gentleman on-screen doing the dirty work is a real-life airline pilot named Bryce Watson. The uniform he wears is bogus, but indeed he is a first officer (copilot) at a major U.S. carrier. I concede that some version of his account is likely true, and I have a hard time believing that he or any other pilot would stand there and knowingly con the American public. I presume that what we see is the heavily edited remnant of a substantially longer commentary. That's the trouble: Apple has condensed a bigger and more complicated sequence of events into a silly caricature. Chances are you've watched and wondered, "It can't possibly be that simple, can it?" The answer is no, of course not.

Alas, not everyone is wisely skeptical, and the first time I saw the ad, I flicked off the set and offered up a silent prayer for pilots and flight attendants the world over. Thanks to this half-minute charade, they must now contend with legions of smart-aleck iSleuths gullible enough to believe what they're told by a commercial.

Apparently, it's already happening. On one of the frequent-flier blogs, an airline pilot writes that only moments after informing his passengers of a weather-related ground hold affecting their flight to Memphis, Tenn., he and his captain received a call from one of the flight attendants. Seems an iPhone-wielding customer in the back had a challenge. "Some guy with an iPhone says the weather is good," the flight attendant says, "and wants to know what the real reason is for the delay. Is something wrong with the plane?"

I like that, "real reason." The implication, as always, is that the carrier is lying or otherwise withholding some critical information. There must be some dangerous malfunction they're not telling us about. After all, "the weather is good," so obviously there's no reason we can't depart immediately.

Reportedly, the captain responded with a public address announcement that was sharp enough to elicit audible laughter from the cabin.

"If the passenger with the iPhone would be kind enough," he began, "to use it to check the weather at our alternate airport, then calculate our revised fuel burn due to being rerouted, then call our dispatcher to arrange our amended release, then make a call to the nearest traffic control center to arrange a new slot time (among all the other aircraft carrying passengers with iPhones), we'll then be more than happy to depart. Please ring your call button to advise the flight attendant and your fellow passengers when you deem it ready and responsible for this multimillion-dollar aircraft and its 84 passengers to safely leave."

Possibly this account is apocryphal (I've seen slightly different transcriptions of the captain's announcement), but no doubt some version of it has occurred, and will occur again. The shrewdness of the captain's comeback makes for a fantastic script, and ought to be copied into every crew member's manual for quick reference. Not because it's arrogant and snarky, which it is, but because it reminds people that contrary to what Apple Computer might lead them to believe, flight delays are neither simple nor instantly solvable.

When storms or other inclement weather impacts an area, traffic backs up and routings become saturated. Flights are put into queue and assigned slot times. Even if conditions clear up, it can take a while for the logjam to disperse. To help expedite departures, many crews will be asked to fly routes other than those initially planned. When that happens, fuel, passenger and cargo loads all can be affected, and much of the original flight plan data needs to be recalculated and/or amended -- everything from anticipated fuel burn to which airports can be legally designated as alternates.

Most passengers aren't aware of it, but the onus of flight planning -- or in this case planning and replanning -- does not fall on pilots, but on professional dispatchers. In the U.S., airline dispatchers must hold FAA licenses, and together with the captain they share responsibility for the safety of their assigned flights. At the largest airlines, teams of dispatchers work together in a huge room, typically at the airline's home base or largest hub, that looks something like NASA Mission Control. From here they oversee the progress of every flight, from push-back to arrival, staying in touch with the crew via radio or an onboard "datalink" computer called ACARS.

It's dispatchers, not so much pilots, whom Apple has thrown under the bus.

"The ad is using the implied credibility of a real airline pilot to hawk a cellphone in a scenario that isn't true," voices one dispatcher, a 30-year veteran with one of the country's biggest carriers (he asks that his name and employer not be identified). "It is ignorant of the interplay between air traffic controllers and dispatchers, and spreads yet more misinformation about how the airlines 'really' work."

For example, first officer Watson notices that "the rain showers had already passed the field." This, the ad suggests, is the reason for his flight's speedy release from gate-hold purgatory. But as any pilot or dispatcher knows, actual conditions, whether right there at the airport or further en route, are only one factor. As I'm known to remind people, there is rarely such a thing as a "weather delay," strictly speaking. More correctly they are traffic delays, and congestion can linger long after storms have cleared out. (Delays are common even in ideal weather -- as was amply demonstrated this past summer at airports nationwide.)

"Usually, traffic delays to Newark aren't due to weather itself," says another dispatcher, with 12 years' experience at both regional and major airlines. "It's about volume. Looking at a radar map on an iPhone will not help your chances at getting an early release. That commercial is total B.S."

But most offensive is the implication that dispatchers wouldn't already have their eye on conditions in the first place. "To suggest that we wouldn't be aware of his situation, and that we're just all asleep at the switch," adds the first dispatcher, "is offensive."

From one perspective, I have to admit the commercial is a good one. It's tight, and it gracefully showcases the capabilities and elegance of the iPhone. Watson is smooth, humble and, for better or worse, eminently believable. Willingly or not, however, he is nurturing the widely held notion that airlines are untrustworthy, dishonest and incompetent. Unfortunately, at certain times, they make every effort to seem that way. But believe me, they know when it's raining.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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