Ask the pilot

Seat ploppers, tray slammers, lousy airport terminal design and other pet peeves. Plus: Will U.S. airlines hit Cuban tarmac thanks to Obama?

Published July 25, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

Air travel pet peeve No. 2,652: Passengers who, after returning from the lavatory, plop violently into their seats with no regard for the cup of coffee or soft drink balanced precariously on your tray.

Air travel pet peeve No. 2,653: If it's not the seat ploppers, it's the tray slammers. I'll never forget nor forgive the sullen teenage girl sitting directly behind me one evening en route from Paris to Delhi, whose method of retracting her table was to slam it as violently as possible into my seat back, when all it needed was a gentle push. SLAM SLAM SLAM, over and over again for eight hours.

These are two more reasons why armrest-mounted tray tables are better than the seat-back-mounted kind. Not only are they closer to your body, reducing hunch-over as you try to work or eat, but you are protected from the bad habits of fellow travelers.

Just how low can an airline stoop in order to generate revenue? Well, Spirit Airlines, the low-cost carrier based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has begun charging a $10 "Web convenience fee" for passengers buying tickets online. That's right. Maybe I'm missing something, but I thought the whole point of online booking was to avoid such fees. For several years now, airlines have been shuttering ticket offices and closing call centers, urging fliers to migrate to the Web. Those who insist on booking the old-fashioned way are hit with a surcharge.

Product plug: Writing in this column some time ago, I suggested the idea of a field guide to commercial aircraft -- a take-along booklet with illustrated tips on differentiating one plane from another. The idea could be popular with kids, aero-enthusiasts and frequent fliers easily infuriated by their inability to tell an Airbus from a Boeing. Delayed on the tarmac, disgruntled fliers could kill time by quizzing themselves.

Such a product is now available. It's called Plane Spotter, a laminated, six-panel foldout that slides neatly into your briefcase or backpack. In an amusing nod to bird guides, the illustrations use small arrows to point out the telltale characteristics of each model. For example, one way of telling an A320 from a 737 is through the curvature of the latter's upper aft fuselage, just under the tail. It's not as comprehensive as it ought to be, but Plane Spotter makes a fun gift. Unfortunately, the ideal venues for selling Plane Spotter, airport bookshops and newsstands, have been mostly off-limits, so your best bet is to order online.

Take it from me, the airport retail world is a maddening racket for authors and publishers alike. The majority of terminal bookshops are controlled by two companies -- Hudson Booksellers and an Atlanta-based outfit called Paradies Shops Inc. (Paradies runs hundreds of small outlets under a variety of gimmicky names.) Getting on these companies' shortlist of merchandise is all but impossible unless you're a bestselling author or sudoku publisher. That your book happens to be for and about the airport does not matter. I wrote "Ask the Pilot" specifically for airline passengers, yet very few of them ever saw it. The lack of airport visibility probably cost me tens of thousands of sales. I reckon the folks at V1 Enterprises, publisher of Plane Spotter, are no less frustrated than I was. Gregory Dicum's "Window Seat" was another ideal airport book hidden from its audience.

Product unplug: Some months ago I sang the praises of TV-B-Gone, a universal remote control small enough to clip onto a key chain. The device promised to be an effective weapon against one of air travel's most infernal scourges -- those damn gate-side TV monitors that blare CNN Airport Network around the clock. Well, the broadcaster has caught on, and its monitors are now shielded.

In fact, short of a power outage or throwing a chair through one, there is virtually no way to turn off those blasted things. The sets run 24/7, and not even airport employees have access to the controls. One night at Kennedy airport recently, a gate agent and I spent several minutes trying in vain to silence one. (Although it was nearly midnight and the terminal was empty, CNN Airport Network was still playing at each and every gate, making it impossible to find a quiet spot to read.) The power cable is concealed in tamperproof casing, and the power and volume controls are disabled. What a senseless waste of energy.

Is it just me, or do airport designers go out of their way to make it difficult to actually see airplanes? There are plenty of new terminals going up around the world, but views of the tarmac and runways are increasingly rare. JFK is maybe the worst. At Terminal 3 there are partitions everywhere, blocking almost all of the windows. In some areas, the glass has been etched to make it opaque. Why? I tend to be overly romantic about these things, but to purposely block the public's view of planes is not only aesthetically rude but counterintuitive to what airports are all about.

As part of a marketing push for its upgraded first-class cabin (full beds, 17-inch personal video and in-seat massage system), Qantas has been running advertisements, both in print and on television, trumpeting itself as the world's oldest carrier. "What else would you expect from an airline," it asks, "that's been flying longer, continuously, than any other?" Not so fast. It seems the Aussies are discounting KLM, presumably on account of that carrier's quasi-merger with Air France. But KLM and Air France continue to operate separately, and KLM's founding date of October 1919 beats that of Qantas by more than a year. You can also make an argument that Avianca, the flag carrier of Colombia, is older as well, though it was born from the merger of two previously established airlines and did not take the Avianca name for several years.

Here are the five oldest airlines still flying under their original monikers:

KLM (1919)
Qantas (1920)
Mexicana (1921)
Aeroflot (1923)
CSA Czech Airlines (1923)

A more enduring myth is the one claiming that Qantas is the only major airline to have never had a crash. I too bought into that one before doing my proper homework (see Chapter 6 of my book). Let the record show that Qantas has recorded at least seven fatal incidents -- though, to be fair, each of these occurred during the airline's early-decades operations, prior to the introduction of jets. (Qantas' safety streak was covered in greater detail in this 2006 column.)

Speaking of crashes. Back in May, in a column about the crash of a DC-9 in Congo, I included a list of more than a dozen airlines, each from countries in the developing world that have remained fatality-free for at least the past 25 years. Air Jamaica, Air Tanzania, Air Niugini and Air Zimbabwe were on that list. As was TACA, one of Latin America's largest and most highly respected carriers. Scratch one. On May 30, 2008, one of TACA's Airbus A320s skidded off a runway at Tegucigalpa, Honduras, killing five people.

TACA was founded in 1931 in Honduras. Today it flies on behalf of five Central American nations: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras. The deadly accident was its first since 1959.

News coverage of the TACA crash ran the typical gamut, from respectable to baffling to completely incoherent. My hometown paper, the Boston Globe, featured a large, above-the-fold photograph of the shattered A320, which the caption referred to in a sort of semicorrect shorthand as an "Airbus 320." Among the fatalities, it went on, were four passengers and "the pilot." This again. I take it for granted that the average newspaper reporter knows that commercial airliners are operated by a minimum of two pilots -- a captain and a first officer. Why, then, "the pilot"? Do you mean the captain? We've been through this before, I know, but it's one of the media's more irritating tics when it comes to aviation coverage. Presumably the error comes from the old "pilot" and "copilot" labels, which are mostly colloquial. "Captain" and "first officer" are the more appropriate terms. Both crew members are fully qualified to operate the aircraft in all regimes of flight, and will typically take turns at the controls. On a two-leg day, for instance, the captain will fly the first leg, and the first officer will take the second. Either way both pilots are plenty busy, but only one is physically at the controls. The captain always has command authority -- and a somewhat bigger paycheck. Moving from first officer to captain is strictly a function of seniority.

If there is any single issue that confirms my support for Barack Obama, it's his stated opposition to that most curious and stupid artifact of American foreign policy: the embargo against Cuba. The only country in the world Americans are prohibited from traveling to by their own government: Cuba. And why, because the island is run by a repressive regime? Spare me. The world is bursting with regimes that make Fidel Castro's little island look like Denmark. No, a 50-year-old grudge remains a fixture of national policy all because a small group of politically influential Floridians demand so. But eventually the embargo will go away. And the important question: Who will be the first U.S. airline into Havana! The smart money says American, what with its heavy presence throughout Latin America and its huge Miami hub. There would likely be a New York flight (or two) as well. Delta? Continental?

Speaking of Delta, in a cost-cutting measure, the airline has decided to cease issuing ticket jackets -- those paper wallets used to hold your boarding pass and tickets. Once upon a time airline tickets were issued by hand, and were often several pages thick, while boarding passes came in the form of card-stock keepsakes. The jacket was a helpful way of organizing it all. Today, electronically issued tickets can be folded into a pocket, and the boarding pass has become a flimsy paper receipt, rendering the jackets all but obsolete. I'm not sure how much money this saves, since they couldn't cost more than a fraction of a penny to manufacture, and were usually emblazoned with advertisements, but if nothing else they're saving a few trees.

When I was a kid in the late 1970s I had a substantial collection of ticket jackets from airlines around the globe.

I had a pretty big timetable collection too. Three or four times a year, airlines would publish thick booklets containing their entire network schedule -- arrival times, departure times, aircraft types, etc. -- plus a wealth of other information. There were seating diagrams, addresses and contact info -- and, my favorite, the foldout route map. The booklets were convenient for frequent fliers on the go, or airline crew members commuting to work. They also made neat collectibles.

For the most part, timetables have been relegated to virtual status on airline Web sites. Curiously, looking at the various carriers' current online versions is something of a sentimental journey, as the basic format has hardly changed. An American Airlines online timetable, for example, is laid out exactly like the printed version many years ago, including the identical typefaces.

Hard-copy versions haven't totally disappeared, but you need to look overseas to find them. Emirates is among those that, for now, still print high-quality timetables.

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

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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Air Travel Ask The Pilot Barack Obama Business Cuba