Ask the pilot

The Six Continent Club, lithium batteries, more defunct airlines: The pilot takes on a grab bag of topics.


Patrick Smith
January 11, 2008 4:39PM (UTC)

The first of these mishmash-style columns ran last April. (Best I know, I was the first columnist in the country to explore the phenomenon of adolescent girls toting giant fluffy pillows through airports.) My chosen title for the series was "Rummaging through the seat pocket of the mind," but my editor never seemed to like that. I have to say they're definitely fun to write, so I hope they're fun to read.

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Editors and fact checkers will go to the ends of the earth to verify certain details -- God forbid a writer get the birth date wrong of some obscure 18th century philosopher. But why is it that aviation references commonly slip through the cracks? Time and time again writers get it wrong, and nobody seems to care. Consider the New Yorker, arguably the most prestigious magazine in the country. In the latest issue, in a "Talk of the Town" piece, editor David Remnick speaks of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "Falcon 9" private jet. There is no such thing as a "Falcon 9." There is, however, a Falcon 900. Did somebody drop some zeroes? In the same magazine a couple of weeks ago, David Sedaris erred on the marketing name for Delta Air Lines' international business class, BusinessElite. Sedaris called it "Business Elite," leaving out the camel cap. That's less than egregious, I suppose, but it's the kind of thing the New Yorker prides itself on getting right. The magazine's style guide may restrict such usage, but that doesn't make it right. BusinessElite is a trademarked name.

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After a series of potentially dangerous fires, the government has issued a new set of rules regarding the carrying of lithium batteries. High-energy lithium-ion power packs, found in many laptop computers and other electronic devices, are susceptible to a phenomenon called "thermal runaway" -- a chemical chain reaction causing them to rapidly and uncontrollably overheat. The Federal Aviation Administration has recorded approximately 73 reports of transportation incidents involving batteries and battery-powered devices in the past 15 years. In 2004, a pallet of improperly packaged batteries caught fire aboard a Federal Express plane as it readied for a flight from Memphis, Tenn., to Paris. In another incident, six lithium-ion batteries caught fire in the overhead bin of a Lufthansa flight on the ground in Chicago. And in February 2006, a UPS freighter made an emergency landing in Philadelphia before being ravaged by an inferno that burned for more than four hours. A shipment of lithium-ion batteries may have touched off the fire.

The new regulations took effect on Jan. 1. Loose (i.e., spare) batteries may no longer be carried in checked baggage. Those properly installed in computers, phones or other devices that they are rated for, however, are not affected, as the risk of short-circuiting is low. There is an exemption allowance for loose batteries in carry-on baggage, provided the terminals are protected by their original packaging, or are placed in a plastic bag or other protective travel case. That might sound contradictory, but the real danger isn't a small fire in the passenger cabin, where it can be readily put out with an extinguisher, but the possibility of an unseen fire in a baggage or freight compartment. Frighteningly, safety testing conducted by the FAA found that current aircraft cargo compartment extinguishing systems would not be capable of suppressing many lithium battery fires. In 1999, a shipment of 120,000 batteries ignited shortly after unloading from a Northwest Airlines jet. Workers repeatedly doused the pallets with a hose, but each time the fire appeared to be out, it suddenly flared up again.

The Department of Transportation has posted a number of safety tips online.

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You may have caught coverage of last month's visit to France by our favorite Libyan peacock, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. There's an airplane connection that served to make the trip especially controversial: the 1989 bombing of UTA Flight 772, for which Gadhafi's government was held responsible. The attack occurred about nine months after the Pan Am bombing at Lockerbie, for which Libya also was responsible. Most Americans don't remember the incident, but it has never been forgotten in France. One hundred and seventy people from 17 countries, including seven Americans, were killed when an explosive device went off in the forward luggage hold of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 on a flight from Brazzaville, Congo, to Paris. The wreckage fell into the Ténéré region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet's most remote areas.

A news photograph of the DC-10's crushed forward fuselage, the blue and white paint incongruously stark against the dun-colored emptiness, is one of the more evocatively gruesome images you'll see and strikingly similar to the iconic photo of the Pan Am 747's cockpit lying in the grass near Lockerbie. It was widely assumed that the Libyan government had orchestrated the bombing, and eventually a French court convicted six in absentia, including Gadhafi's brother-in-law. The colonel later agreed to blood money settlements for Libya's hand in both the UTA and Pan Am bombings. The UTA agreement doles out $1 million to each of the families of the 170 victims. More than $2.7 billion was allotted to the Lockerbie next of kin.

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UTA (Union des Transports Aériens) eventually became part of Air France. It was a storied carrier specializing in routes to former French colonies and territories. Its network -- across West Africa and deep into the South Pacific -- was among the most exotic and far-flung.

Speaking of airlines that no longer exist, two recent casualties join the long list of historic names that have bitten the dust since 2001. The first is BWIA (British West Indian Airways), the national carrier of Trinidad and Tobago, which ceased operations last year after more than six decades of flying. BWIA's network once reached New York and London, where its colorfully painted L-1011s and, later, A340s were a common sight. The airline has been reborn as Caribbean Airways, staffed by a number of ex-BWIA workers. Those who elected to come back have done so at substantially reduced salaries and benefits.

The second and more unfortunate shutdown is that of Lloyd Aereo Boliviano (LAB), the airline of Bolivia and one of the oldest and proudest carriers in the world, founded in 1925. Despite operating into some of the hemisphere's most rugged terrain, LAB boasted an exemplary safety record. In its final 40 years of operation, it recorded only two fatal accidents on scheduled passenger runs, killing 36 people.

Swissair, Sabena, Air Afrique, Ghana Airways -- and now BWIA and LAB. It's hard nowadays for people to feel sentimental about airlines, but these companies were more than meager modes of transport; they were national flag carriers, proud ambassadors of their countries.

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Another venerable franchise may soon be gone as well. As of press time, the fate of Venezuela's Aéropostale is being decided by creditors and government regulators. Established in 1930, Aéropostale is/was the third-eldest airline on the continent, just behind LAB and Colombia's Avianca. (Set up in 1919, Avianca is second oldest in the world.) I once flew Aéropostale between Caracas and the Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz. I described the experience in a October 2004 column.

Varig (Brazil), Alitalia and others continue on with uncertain futures. And don't be surprised if one or more U.S. legacy airlines disappear through merger or acquisition in the next year or so. Rumors of impending consolidation have been swirling.

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If and when that consolidation happens, this author is liable to find himself out of a job yet again.

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Emirates has announced that it will strive to become nothing less than the world's largest airline by 2015. Measured by revenue passenger kilometers (RPK), it currently ranks 13th. Reaching the top spot, currently held by American Airlines, would entail more than tripling in size over the next seven years. That's some giddy ambition, but remember that a little more than 20 years ago Emirates' entire fleet consisted of two leased planes. Today it flies well over a hundred aircraft, all of them wide bodies, with 58 A380 superjumbos on order, funneling 17 million passengers annually through one of the most successful transit hubs.

Last fall, Emirates inaugurated service from its headquarters in Dubai to the Brazilian city of São Paulo. In doing so, it became the first airline in history to offer nonstop service between the Middle East and South America, and the first to link all six continents (Antarctica not included) with nonstop flights from a single hub. The "from a single hub" aspect might not be terribly meaningful, but either way Emirates becomes one of only a handful of airlines that currently serve at least one city on each continent. It joins Air France, British Airways, Malaysia Airlines and South African Airways.

The "Six Continent Club" was the topic of a column two years ago. There hasn't been a U.S. member since Pan Am, but I'd keep an eye on Continental.

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Or possibly Delta. It was only a year ago that the Atlanta-based giant became the first U.S. carrier in 15 years to serve sub-Saharan Africa (I covered the inaugural flight from Atlanta to Dakar and Johannesburg here). It has since added routes to Accra and Lagos, with Nairobi, Cairo and Cape Town on tap. Delta's international expansion over the past few years has been arguably the most aggressive of any American player since the heyday of Pan Am. It needs only Australia for Six Continent membership. Adding a route to Australia would be no easy task, but one way of making it happen would be that widely rumored merger with United.

Continental needs only Africa to make it happen. It was set to begin service to Lagos in 2005, but the route was postponed. That plan could quickly be dusted off, or else supplanted with something new -- say, Newark, N.J., to JoBurg or Cape Town.

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But here's a question: Why does no American carrier fly to Poland? If Delta can make money in places like Bucharest, Amman, Malaga and Kiev, flights to Poland would hardly seem crazy. If not Delta, then somebody else. Surely a route from Chicago or New York would be popular. Polish carrier LOT has been serving both of those markets for decades. Considering the millions of Americans of Polish descent, I can't imagine there isn't room for another contender.

Then again, does an ethnic connection, by itself, justify service between two countries? Granted there are plenty of Polish-Americans, but maybe the resulting traffic would fail to bring in the high-end business fares that airlines need to survive in international markets.

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About a year ago, in a discussion about stowaways, I recalled a remarkable photograph I'd seen as a teenager depicting a young boy falling to his death from the landing gear bay of a Japan Air Lines DC-8. The picture would have been taken in the late 1960s or early '70s. I remembered it vividly, but hadn't seen it in more than 20 years. After much searching, I've finally managed to locate a copy online, viewable here. As the caption explains, John Gilpin, an amateur photographer, was trying out a new camera lens at the airport in Sydney, Australia, when he unwittingly captured the deadly fall of 14-year-old Keith Sapsford, who had sneaked into the undercarriage well in hopes of reaching Japan.

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Lastly, a small confessional. By airing this in public, maybe my luck will change.

I once wrote that judging a flight by the smoothness of the landing is a bit like judging a chapter by a single punctuation mark. Not that an aviator doesn't take pride in "greasing one on," but it's hardly an indicator of overall experience, talent or skill. Pilots will suffer spells of rough landings the way baseball players go through batting slumps.

I need all the excuses I can get -- my landings have been awful lately. My latest, at the end of a flight from Brazil, may have been the worst. Imagine if you will the sound of a hundred empty trash barrels dropped from a three-story building. That was the noise of my 767 flopping onto the pavement, followed in short order by a distinct cackling sound -- that of the captain laughing.

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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.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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