Ask the pilot

Much of what frustrates us about flying doesn't take place during flight at all. It's getting on and off that's really irritating.

By Patrick Smith
Published March 7, 2008 11:36AM (EST)

It's not often you see a dateline composed of latitude and longitude coordinates, but that's the easiest way of describing this place -- a jungle lodge on the borders of Colombia, Peru and Brazil, three hours by fast boat from the Colombian town of Leticia. I've dispatched columns from some exotic places in the past, but never from a thatched-roof cabin on the banks of an Amazon tributary. If this one feels a bit looser and more casual than normal, I blame it on the setting. There's a languor in the air, to say the least. (And if not for the lodge's daily, three-hour allotment of electricity, I'd never have finished this thing.)

Being in the Amazon also has a way of putting one in a certain ecological frame of mind. That's much the point of being here, I guess, and it's a fitting coincidence on the heels of my recent two-part series on airlines and the environment.

Speaking of which: If my flight from the United States to Colombia was any indication, my estimates on the volume of in-flight trash production were woefully conservative. Within a half-hour of departure I had already gone through three plastic drinking cups: one cup for the orange juice served during boarding, another for the Coke Zero I drank after takeoff and yet a third accompanying the small bottle of wine that came with my dinner. I never had the chance to say no.

Oh, and dinner itself? Somewhere in that assemblage of plastic trays and cellophane wrappers was actual food. The weight of the packaging clearly outweighed the edible parts. Most ridiculous of all was the little foil-sealed container of water included in the setup -- that'd be taza numero cuatro -- a needless and wasteful accessory seeing how the in-flight meal is always accompanied by a beverage service.

Did I say "languor in the air"? Not even a page later and I'm already griping about something that happened five days and 5,000 miles ago. The gravity of Amazonia is no match for a crank like me. Why can't I just mellow out? Then again, to recall Werner Herzog's famous and hysterical soliloquy (filmed near Iquitos, less than a hundred miles from here), we shouldn't idealize the jungle, a place of angst and "misery" and murderous natural struggle. Sounds like flying.

Right, so, and another thing:

Ladies and gentleman, your attention please. None of us enjoys the tedium of boarding and disembarking from a crowded airplane. We walk, we stand, we wait; we walk, we stand, we wait. Those bottlenecks and the throat of the jetway can be hellish, and it often takes several minutes to get from the doorway to your seat, or vice versa. But if you want to make it slightly easier on your fellow travelers, a simple recommendation: When boarding, please, for the love of God, do not place your carry-on bags in the first empty bin that you come to. Use a bin as close to your seat as possible.

It drives me crazy when I see a guy shoving his 26-inch Tumi into a bin above Row 5, then continuing on to his assigned seat in Row 52. I know it's tempting, but this causes the forward bins to fill up quickly. Because airplanes are usually boarded back to front, there are no spaces left for subsequent passengers whose assigned seats are in the forward part of the cabin. They are forced to travel backward to stow their belongings, then return upstream, against the flow of traffic, clogging the aisle.

Then, after landing, the same thing happens in reverse, only now it's worse because everybody is moving up the aisle en masse, hurrying to get off. Heaven help the poor sod who has to navigate rearward to retrieve his stuff. It happened to me the other day. I was seated in the very first row of economy, yet I was the last person off the plane.

Am I wrong to suggest that assigned bins might be a good idea? People I've spoken with are skeptical -- there are a lot more seats than bins, they argue, and not everybody carries the same size carry-ons -- but I'm convinced there's a way to make it work. If nothing else, airlines should make a gateside announcement requesting that passengers please use compartments at or near their seats.

The basic philosophy of boarding a plane from the rear might itself be part of the problem. If you ask me, planes should be boarded not back-to-front, but outside-in. In other words, window and center seats first, followed by the aisles. A lot of the existing congestion is caused by people having to squeeze around each other to reach their outboard seats. If I'm in Seat C, I often need to stand and move into the aisle in order to let the window-seater get past me. A different option is a process in which rows are boarded out-of-sequence, in staggered sets rather than consecutively. You call every second or third row, allow the passengers to stow their bags, then repeat. According to one study, you can load a plane up to 10 times faster this way.

Not that it makes a whole lot of difference, since many people hate getting on a plane early and will wait as long as possible, ignoring any sequenced boarding calls. These last-minute boarders cause almost as many holdups as the bin hoggers. Others simply waltz onto the plane whenever they feel like it, regardless of which rows have been called.

Another recommendation: Families with kids in strollers should be boarded first, and upon arrival they should be asked to stay in their seats until everybody else has exited. How many total hours are wasted each day waiting for parents to assemble their strollers and gather up the approximately 90 pounds of gear that is apparently required by every traveling child under 5? (I also advocate the mandatory muzzling and sedating of all infants and toddlers, but that's a different issue.)

Funny, so much of what frustrates us about flying takes place not during flight itself, but before and after, when the plane isn't moving. Getting on and off can be remarkably time-consuming.

"Planes have a lot of doors," submits one reader. "I'm talking full-size exits, not the emergency hatches. How come only one is used for boarding and deplaning? Using multiple doors would greatly speed things up. Why is this never done?"

It is, occasionally. It depends on the airport, terminal and aircraft type. When aircraft are parked on remote pads, as happens sometimes at JFK and many foreign airports, it's common to have two or more sets of stairs attached forward and aft. (Unfortunately, that does not necessarily quicken the boarding process, as remotely parked planes often require a bus ride to and from the apron.) Passengers disembarking from the Delta Shuttle can either use the standard 1L door (first door forward, on the left) or, weather permitting, deplane directly onto the tarmac using the MD-88's aft airstairs.

Many jetway tunnels have dual connectors providing access to both the 1L and 2L doors, for (larger) planes that are so equipped -- though, for whatever reason, you tend to encounter these in Europe and Asia more frequently than in the United States. A number of gates at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport have unusual boarding bridges with access to both front and rear doors. The passageway actually runs over the airplane's left wing and connects to the aft-most door.

One thing you'll notice, however, is that boarding and disembarking almost always take place on the left side of the plane. The right side is used for servicing and catering. Only once have I ever boarded a jet from the right side (it happened in New York, on a remote parking pad, about two weeks ago).

"And what the heck is going on," asks the same reader, "from the time the plane gets to its gate to when they actually open the door and let us out? Sometimes it's only a couple of minutes but other times it's eternity."

In most cases this is a problem of the airplane getting to the parking spot before the gate personnel are ready for it. During peak arrival/departure pushes, or when staffing is low, this can take longer than it should. There needs to be at least one agent to operate the jetway, plus another one, usually, at the top of the exit ramp to direct passengers and answer questions. Neither pilots nor flight attendants have the authority to open the door and begin letting people off without the OK of the ground staff.

Or it might be a technical thing. There's a rule that the doors can't be opened until the engines are shut down and the aircraft is powered either by an external power supply or the onboard auxiliary power unit (APU). (The APU is a small turbine engine that provides supplementary air, electrics and other functions.) There might be an APU snag or temporary trouble with the ground supply (such as the ramp personnel taking their sweet time before plugging it in).

At many European stations, for safety reasons workers will not approach a plane or even move the boarding bridge until the engines are off and the plane's rotating beacon lights are extinguished -- an indication that the aircraft is properly shut down and secure for disembarking. Shutting off the beacon lights is normally one of the final items on the shutdown checklist, and it might take a minute or two for the crew to get there.

True story: A week or so ago we pulled up to the gate in London, switched off the seat belt sign, shut the engines down and ran the checklist. As we started to gather up our stuff, we realized none of the doors had been opened. The boarding bridge was still 30 feet away, with the driver standing there looking at us. "What the heck are they doing?" asked the captain. Eventually we figured out that we'd forgotten to switch off the beacon light. The ground crew wasn't going to budge until we did so.

It happens. Sorry about that.

And let's not begin to pick apart those situations, of which there are far too many, when a plane stops short of the terminal, accompanied by the embarrassed crew announcing that "our gate is currently occupied."

I know what you're thinking: If an airline is aware of every flight's ETA then why, why, why can it not have the gate ready on time? And what about those situations where the adjacent gate is sitting there empty? Can't we simply use that one, and let a later arrival use the occupied gate?

Suffice it to say there's a complex choreography to where and when airplanes park, based on arrival times, departure times, passenger loads, customs and immigration issues, etc. The how and why of it isn't necessarily obvious. That said, you're preaching to the choir. Pilots ask those same frustrated questions as often as passengers do.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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